Sarah Herrmann of ABMC and Kurt Schlosser of Geekwire both recently wrote wonderful pieces about the Monuments Project. These articles generated interest from a range of people offering a variety of potential contributions to our effort. We heard from an historian with expertise on the Gold Star Mother Pilgrimages, others that had written on divisions in which our Washingtonian soldiers of interest served, and another on the specific ship that one soldier, George Buchanan, was on when struck by German torpedoes. That latter individual even checked our Meet the Teams page in order to identify the specific students he could help best, offering to speak with them directly. We also received a message from a woman in Illinois. Her great uncle served in WWI and he is buried in Suresnes. She is eager to share his story along with scans of primary documents the family has held onto since the war, documents not available in any archive, digital or physical.
It would be difficult to overstate the impact such connections beyond the classroom can have on the students involved. From a pedagogical standpoint, the engagement is evident in the documentation of our project launch, welcomed and challenged as our students were by ABMC to help tell these stories. Our partners from Lopez Island felt the same thing in their visit to the Washington State Capitol building in Olympia. Our respective connections with professional local partners and their support for getting involved in a real challenge hooked the students immediately.
Hearing from so many voices beyond our classroom since that launch further underscores the interest in and value of the work they are trying to do. Almost every class since our launch I have been able to start by sharing news of another distant missive from one person or another that applauds the effort and offers to help in some way. Reading these emails makes our students eager to get back to work, to expand their own contribution to the construction of these narratives. There is no grudging acquiescence, no grumbling about arbitrary obligations. There is a real desire to have a hand in this history.
These connections also make the world outside our classroom seem less distant and intimidating. Students have reflexively and comfortably reached out to a variety of county archives and historical societies that may hold documents of interest. Several students have already benefitted from the support of archivists in towns like Wenatchee, WA who have gone out of their way to share both digital and physical materials that we would not be able to access otherwise. The results have been mixed on how far these connections can take us in our understanding of these soldiers’ lives but in terms of cultivating initiative and skills for communication and problem-solving, the results are clear. I consider it a good sign when I overhear students grumbling in frustration, “it’s so unfair. They heard from their archivist already!”
I tried to simulate this for our students early on in my emails with an archivist at the University of Washington’s Special Collections. I tried to show students how, lacking any prior affiliation, I could reach out and introduce myself and the project and ask for any resources and support she might offer. I showed them how she got back to me, sharing scans of 9 primary documents directly related to my soldier of interest and tips for new databases I could explore on my own. She replied to my follow-ups and expanded research and questioning. Without prompting she even reached out to the Lewis County Historical Museum and got them to scan Ward’s obituary. Then she sent it to me, direct from UW to Paris, France. Now I had this document to share with my students, which more than all the others I’d gathered, represented the power that digital tools can have for archival research and collaborative storytelling. That document also represented what I have noticed as a sea change in the last 5 years. The seamless ability to scan and share has made such remote searching, even for documents yet digitized, easier. I don’t believe that even 5 years ago our students would be having the success they are having in hearing back from local archives on emails that have documents attached.
I shared my dialogue with this UW archivist with my students in an effort to impart Ward’s story but also, more importantly, to highlight the process of piecing it together. I emphasized that my favorite part of that exchange with this archivist included a back and forth we had about Homer’s little brother, Arthur Hoyt Ward. I found a document on Ancestry.com that showed he too had served in the war. I sought out my archivist’s expertise for corroboration. Did she know about Arthur? Did she have any documents about him? She confirmed it with great excitement and, characteristically, she pushed further. She went on Ancestry and found the troop transport logs. She got back to me the next day to not only confirm Arthur’s service but also confirm that both he and Homer left Hoboken, NJ for the war on the same ship, the Madawaska. “I can’t help but wonder,” she wrote, “how Arthur felt traveling home alone after the war.” That sentence gave me goosebumps. Her wonder, and the many documents that triggered it, got me thinking. And it got my students thinking. And when we share it on this site and on our app for visitors to Suresnes, it will get them thinking, all of which models a healthy merger between technology and physical archives, professionals in GLAM’s and students in (or outside) the classroom, schools and their communities, and between individuals in countries thousands of miles apart.
To be clear, I am not quite convinced that all of this has the same power of working through such materials in person. If I could, I’d fly my students over there to work through those documents by hand. I’d prefer to have them talk with an archivist in person, bumble through collections descriptions, get lost in adjacent files of varying physical medium, and leave the space with a more palpable sense of the region's history and how Homer Ward fit into it, which digital work does not yield in quite the same way. There is something about the tactile engagement with artifacts that the digital work cannot compensate for.
That noted, there is also a satisfaction in this digitally crowdsourced construction of narrative that is equally powerful, just different. It stems from the sense of successful collaboration in telling the story, in piecing together the puzzle, from Lewis County to UW to Paris, France and, finally, to the cemetery in Suresnes, in very little time. Regardless of our progress from here, our students can already see how bigger challenges of any type might be met, or at least chipped away at, if we can marshal even the smallest contributions from all corners.
I’d also highlight the satisfaction found in the unanticipated personal connections these dialogues forge. One student asked last week if she could write to our contact in Illinois about her family’s effort to fill out this branch of their family tree, to better know and share the story of their ancestor who fought in WWI and is buried in Suresnes. In addition to writing this family this student offered to go to Suresnes on her own time and take a photo to send along to them, a photo of their ancestor’s monument, which the family has neither touched nor seen. Unprompted, this student explained her interest in taking this action. Her family came from a place where an outside power destroyed evidence of her family tree. She wanted to help this individual and her family better understand those pieces of their family history that perhaps she herself might not get to enjoy.
None of this work is easy and each day is marked by considerable uncertainty. There is a mingling of luck and pluck at work. Our students are experiencing it now. That is what accompanies research and outreach though, in authentic form. They don’t have the passivity-inducing comfort of canned primary document sets or content knowledge aligned to end-of-year tests and worked towards through a familiar design and rhythm of worksheets and quizzes. Some students have found little beyond the basic info on their soldier so far. Others have had stretches of frustrating days punctuated with big finds or vice versa. What they have all found is that real research and the unique perspective it might lead to is incredibly hard earned, that there’s a reason these stories aren’t yet told. But they have also been ceaselessly engaged in the task and they've found a network of people from different parts of the world eager to help them along.
And they have continued to cultivate the skills and sensibility for research that will transfer to other inquiries, which they don’t always quite understand when they try one method, database, or archive and come up empty handed. I try to emphasize to them that if they can prove to me, by walking me through their process, that there is nothing about their soldier or their unit in Chronicling America then they know how to use that resource. The same with a physical archive, whether one visited in person or contacted remotely. Put another way, we’re not so much assessing what our students find, we’re assessing the strategies and skills they deploy in the pursuit. So far, I couldn’t be more pleased.
The engagement we've seen so far stems directly from their sense of connection with the world beyond their classroom. It stems from a sense of partnership with ABMC and Suresnes, the archives in Washington that have helped as able, and the variety of other individuals all over the map who have reached out to get involved so far.
We welcome more of such involvement and contribution. In the next few weeks we would love to hear from you, regardless of your affiliation or expertise. Do you have family documents pertaining to this project? Do you have expertise on WWI service members buried in Suresnes or the divisions they served in? Do you have an interest in digging locally? Are you employed at an archive or library that might have materials on WWI service members from your town, in Washington or elsewhere? Follow the steps on our Join Us page to get started on your contribution. You won't just be sharing stories about the individuals buried in Suresnes, you'll be helping and encouraging our students in their own efforts to do the same.