Students Preserve History, Gain Experience

Undergrads Archive Decades of Organization’s Materials

Ashley Long, Derek Winslow, Meghan Chapman and Prof. Christopher Carlsmith are about to begin archiving decades of correspondences related to the New England Renaissance Conference.

Ashley Long, Derek Winslow, Meghan Chapman and Prof. Christopher Carlsmith are about to begin archiving decades of correspondences related to the New England Renaissance Conference.

11/15/2012
By Julia Gavin

When Prof. Christopher Carlsmith saw 60 years of the New England Renaissance Conference (NERC) materials sitting on a colleague’s desk at another college, he had an idea. The items needed archiving and his students needed primary source materials. A natural fit.

After securing the materials and planning the 2012 NERC conference at the University, Carlsmith began working with a few students to organize and record the programs, correspondences and other materials detailing the gathering since its 1930s beginning. The students have started the project by scanning and posting the available conference programs online.

“It’s really rewarding having these primary sources, but until now there haven’t been any duplicates so it’s been a bit stressful handling them,” says Derek Winslow, a history major from Methuen. “When Professor Carlsmith gave me programs to start scanning a few months ago on a rainy day, I ran from Coburn to O’Leary with them protected in my jacket.”  

Ashley Long, a history major from Merrimack, N.H., collected information to determine where and how often the conference has been held. Going over the programs has given the students and Carlsmith a better understanding of how the conference has changed over the years. Along with rising dinner costs and shifting presentations depending on the field’s hot topics, the programs show how the conference has gained a wider audience in recent years. 

“Early on, NERC was dominated by the Ivy League and major public schools,” says Carlsmith. “But in the last decade, there’s been a conscious effort to include a broader group of scholars and students.”

The archiving project is helping the University take a leading role among that audience. After finishing archiving the programs, the students will tackle conference correspondences and build a history of the organization from the materials and member interviews. Their findings and products will be shared with members and will potentially be presented at the 2014 conference.  

The project has been so successful thus far that Carlsmith plans to expand it into a class in which students will work with local organizations to create similar multisource archives and reports. The research and processes involved are shifting as more organizations build online presences, offering a vital hands-on learning experience for all involved.  

“We don't usually get to touch the actual papers and materials in our classes since we’re dealing with past events, says Meghan Chapman, a history major from Dracut. “This project has really brought our studies into the real world by putting our historical methods work to use and allowing us to start real research while still in school.”  

Adding Their Conference to the Archive  

The group also gained experience in recording a current event as the University hosted the 2012 conference in October. The conference, which Carlsmith has been working on with colleagues and students, brought Renaissance scholars from all over the nation to Lowell.  

Papers covering architecture, Poland, the Roman Republic and other topics brought new perspectives of the Renaissance to attendees. A paper drawing connections between the human form and Renaissance buildings sparked Long’s interest and started conversations about architecture. Faculty-led tours of the Whistler House Museum of Art and Lowell’s canals and mills brought the history home for students. Prof. Robert Forrant’s tour of downtown mills put the town in a historical context for visitors and residents alike.  

Carlsmith says that organizing the conference was a breeze with help from his students and colleagues. “I’ve been blessed to have such excellent students helping with this project,” says Carlsmith. “Now we’re looking forward to the next step in the archiving process.

To see the project’s process, visit the New England Renaissance Conference website.