This post is part of a series on the Tri-Co DH Summer '14 Interns. Brenna Levitin (BMC '16) is working with the The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Higher Education.
If you’re familiar with Bryn Mawr College, you’re probably familiar with its lesbian-leaning stereotype. Upon further research, though, it’s difficult to find any official acknowledgement of our actual LGBT population. Looking through our history, we see that LGBT life at Bryn Mawr began with its founding; the first Dean and second President, M. Carey Thomas, had multiple female partners over her 28-year tenure as our fearless leader. LGBT life at Bryn Mawr has existed in every decade, from those heavily closeted in 1939 to today’s out and proud students.
Despite the persistent existence of LGBT students, faculty, and staff at Bryn Mawr, the LGBT community has rarely been officially acknowledged. This is where my internship comes in.
This summer, I’m interning at The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education, where I’m curating a digital exhibit about the history of LGBT experiences at Bryn Mawr from 1970 to 2000. This exhibit aims to illuminate the gaps in official discourse and to acknowledge and affirm the intrinsic place LGBT persons and groups in our history.
The Greenfield Digital Center is housed within Bryn Mawr’s Special Collections, so I have easy access to the physical records of the college’s history. The archives cannot tell the complete story, however. Archives are inherently biased sources; after all, the victor tells the story. Archives often primarily collect official records, which as time passes allow the nuances (and minority voices) of a situation to fall away. It’s the historian’s job to read against the grain to understand the positions of those whose records were not preserved.
That’s my job, too: as curator and historian, I examine primary sources for hints of conflict and community. The first weeks of my internship consisted of reading through years of the College News, the Bryn Mawr-Haverford College News (now the Bi-Co News), old alumnae magazines, yearbooks, and assorted student publications. I used these sources to gain a foothold in my time period and to establish a timeline of events. I also identified those students, faculty, and staff who greatly affected or contributed to the LGBT community during their time at Bryn Mawr. Now I’m synthesizing this information and beginning to reach out to those whom I want to interview. July will be spent soliciting, gathering, and processing oral histories, and in August, I will finally build the exhibit itself.
When I read back through the last paragraph, the digital/analog split strikes me. This internship is graciously funded through the Tri-College Digital Humanities Initiative, yet much of my summer has been and will be spent touching paper and using analog technologies.
The digital and analog technologies are not all at odds, however. I use Google to search for what became of the people whom I read about in the archives, I use Facebook to connect to Bryn Mawr’s enormous alumnae/i network, and I use email, the telephone, and Skype to communicate with those to whom I reached out. Digital technologies allow me to more quickly process analog ones: transcribing oral history tapes is much easier on a computer.
Though my project is rapidly becoming digitally-based, I would be nowhere without the paper sources which I spent weeks studying intimately. Digital humanities projects don’t necessarily exclude analog technologies; in fact, history projects particularly have trouble basing themselves on solely born-digital sources. History, or the time periods which most historians consider “history,” lives almost entirely on paper. Even as late as my project looks, to 1999, sources exist on paper, only digitized when I reach out to their creators on the internet.
Is this digital/analog diametric a unique experience, or is it the norm?
I wager that this experience is not only typical for digital historians, but expected. To me, this internship is at the crux of the Digital Humanities. As historians in the twenty-first century, we must transition our approach to one which is equally comfortable in the paper archives of history and in the digital products of today. History by nature is removed, hard to access. The Digital Humanities allow us not only to bring history to life through interactive exhibits, but also to make that history accessible to anyone with an internet connection. My goal for this exhibit is to remind Bryn Mawr of its roots, to acknowledge and celebrate Bryn Mawr’s LGBT history, and to remind us that, in the words of alumna Judith Masur, “we have always been.”
Follow Brenna's research on the Greenfield Center blog.
As I explore the depths of the archives, I've encountered numerous queer poems. This piece, written by an alum and published in a 1989 issue of the Alumnae Bulletin, merited further examination of its historical Mawrter references.