Tell Us About Your Research – Lydia Murdoch

Posted on behalf of Molly James, Library Research Department Intern

Lydia Murdoch


As many of you know, March is Women’s History Month, a commemoration that sprang from International Women’s Day (March 8), whose origins go back to the early twentieth century.  It’s the perfect time to catch up with Vassar Professor of History Lydia Murdoch and learn more about her most recent book, The Daily Life of Victorian Women, and her research practices in general.


Q: Could you please explain your field and your current research?

A: I am a historian of modern Britain and I teach courses that extend from the 17th century into the 20th century. My main expertise is on the 19th century and I am primarily a cultural and social historian. That means I’m interested in the daily life of people and questions of identity. I do a lot of work with gender and the family and the history of childhood in particular. I also teach classes on imperialism and the British Empire and I teach a seminar on the First World War- a range of things.

Q: The Daily Life of Victorian Women is your most recent book. What type of research did you conduct for it and where did you do it?

A: The book is a survey on a huge topic, divided thematically with chapters on estate, religion, family, health and sexuality, childhood, education, urban life, and empire. So the research was very different from anything I’d done before – much broader, more synthetic research, looking at scholarship produced in the last 20 years about women, gender and sexuality, all these questions to create a text that has the most recent research in it.

I also included a lot of selections of primary historical documents. For those, the research was in primary works, and I was able to do most of it at Vassar using our amazing library resources. We have incredible databases for the 19th century to find journal articles, including C19 for British periodicals, government documents, and abolitionist pamphlets, a lot of them written by women’s organizations. We have The London Times and The Times of India full text online, and these were essential documents for me to be able to use.

Research librarians, Gretchen Lieb and Carol Lynn Marshall, who work very closely with me as liaisons for Women’s Studies and History, were amazing. Rachelle Ramer, our Science Librarian, is helping me with my most recent project. Barbra Durniak helped me with some complex interlibrary loan requests. I used more popular sources for The Daily Life of Victorian Women, and although most of the research I could find through Vassar, there were pamphlets I couldn’t find here or in other places, but by using interlibrary loan I was able to get copies of them. Vassar’s library has a wonderful collection of materials for the 19th century.

Q: How often do you go to England for your research?

A: It really depends, varying on my own life cycle. When I was a graduate student I went and lived there for a whole year. Now I try to go back during the summers. Daily Life of Victorian WomenOne of the reasons I agreed to do the textbook, The Daily Life of Victorian Women, was because it was harder for me to travel. I needed something I could do while I was based here. Last summer I went to England for research and for a conference, and I plan to go back this summer for two weeks. It’s a very different research experience partly because of my stage of life and technology. As a graduate student I would go and sit, read everything, and synthesize while in the archives. I still think that’s a great luxury and allows, in some ways, more in depth engagement with the sources. Now when I’m there I’ll scan and copy and photograph documents as fast as I can and bring them back home to analyze.

Q: Where do you go for your research?

A: I go to a mix of archives. One of the key places I go is the British Library, in the main library’s manuscripts room, where I work quite a bit with manuscripts and diaries. I also work in what’s called the India Office Records, because I do imperial history.  That’s where all the official East India Company records are. They have an amazing photographic image collection. I also go to the main archives in the Greater London Record Office, which is now called the London Metropolitan Archives, again a wonderful place to work in London because it has all the government records. Last summer I went there to look at coroner records to trace child mortality, illness, vaccination, medical issues, and medical histories. I’m excited this summer to start works at an archive called The Women’s Library Archive. It recently moved; it’s now at London School of Economics. It’s a great resource for women’s history and women’s records.

I’m certainly interested in longstanding issues in gender, women, and childhood. I was looking at materials for this book about child mourning and child death and was looking at one of the most popular movements of the 19th century, the anti-vaccination movement. In the India Office Records of the British Library I found documents regarding children in India being used to spread the smallpox vaccine. The children used for these campaigns were drawn from what were called orphanages, but the children weren’t full orphans. The records described that the main method for transmitting vaccine matter was to infect one child and have the pus develop in the pox and take from that pus to literally infect another child consecutively. To transmit vaccine over long distances, by sea and by land, they needed children. I found these records describing children in the Bengal lower orphan school, which was for primarily mixed race children, who often had native mothers and fathers from the East India Company. I tried to look at how what is described as the greatest humanitarian liberal reform of the early 19th century, spreading vaccination and saving a tremendous number of lives through this technology, was also built on the hierarchies of colonialism, race, class, parentage.

New Faces in the Library

In September 2013, Vassar College Libraries welcomed a new librarian, Rachelle Ramer.

Q. What work do you do at Vassar College Libraries?

A. I am the Research Librarian for the Sciences, which means I am the liaison to Astronomy, Biochemistry, Biology, Chemistry, Cognitive Science, Computer Science, Earth Science, Environmental Studies, Mathematics, Neuroscience & Behavior, Physics, and Psychology, and the Program for Science, Technology and Society. As a liaison I work with students and faculty to find, access and use information resources within the discipline, and to strengthen their skills in doing so.  Additionally, I am responsible for developing Vassar’s collection in my liaison areas.

Q. Have you worked at other libraries before coming to Vassar?

A. Before coming to Vassar, I was working at the Grainger Engineering Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Q. What did you do there, and how is it different from your work here?

A. My work there was similar, but here I have greater responsibilities, work with all the sciences, and I get to work more with students and classes on information literacy skills.

Q. Why do you like (or not like) working in libraries?

A. I love that I never know what questions I’ll get to help answer each day; I’m always learning new things.  I’m also passionate about working with scientific information to support research and education.

Q. What are your interests outside of work?

A. I enjoy traveling, visiting aquariums, and learning and trying new things.  Since coming to Poughkeepsie, I’ve been experimenting with cooking using locally grown food.  I’m proud to be a nerd and particularly enjoy playing all types of games.  I also love puzzles and theater, books, and movies.

Please join us in welcoming Rachelle to the Vassar College Libraries!


Tell Us About Your Research – Eve Dunbar

Posted on behalf of Kamara Mion, Library Research Department Intern


Behind every great lecture and every written work are countless hours of researching and planning that often begin in the library.  In this column, we look at how a particular member of the Vassar faculty uses the library and its resources for their work.

Professor Eve Dunbar specializes African American literature and cultural expression, black feminism, and theories of black diaspora. She is the author of  Black Regions of the Imagination: African American Writers between the Nation and the World (2012), which explores the aesthetic and political ties that bind literary genre, American nationalism, and black cultural nationalism in the literary works of mid-20th century African American writers.

We asked Prof. Dunbar to tell us a bit more about her recent projects and how she uses the Vassar libraries…

Please, tell us about your current projects.

zoranealehurstonFranzBoasMost recently I’ve been working down in Special Collections, in rare books.  I was looking for Zora Neale Hurston, an African American woman writer from the early 20th century.  I was asked to contribute an essay to a volume on Franz Boas, who many consider to be the father of modern American anthropology. The volume is on Boas’ influence on the discipline and I was asked to write on the relationship between Hurston and Boas.  While a student at Barnard, Hurston took many classes and studied with Boas, who was a Columbia professor.

How did you use the Vassar Library? Were there any particular databases?

ruthbenedictI thought that I might investigate the type of relationship between Boas and Hurston through exploring the letters of Ruth Benedict. Besides being one of the most important of female anthropologists during her period, she was a Vassar graduate.  The Vassar Library has all of her papers, a lot of interesting letters.  I found that by looking at these letters that I could see all three relationships, Benedict’s to Boas, Boas to Hurston, and Hurston to Benedict.

What did this research lead to?

I’m writing two essays, one very academic, the second shorter and more for a general reading audience.

Did you use other databases or libraries, and how so?

skinnerI used MLA Bibliography, and the Music Library at Skinner Hall.  My research focuses on the African diaspora, and while Skinner’s books focus primarily on music, they have a lot of books that really touch more on cultural aspects, so I was able to use the Music Library for an essay that dealt with hip-hop fiction, street literature and feminism. I also used the Beinecke at Yale, and the Schomberg at NYC Public Library.*

How do you approach a topic that requires extensive research?

I go into the archives, find a primary document that opens up the time and place and start with one article. Then I mine the article and bibliography for a set of readings that everyone who’s writing on that topic is also reading.  It’s important because I need to know the shape of the discussion I’m writing against first, so that I can then make a well-informed argument.  Of course, you also want to find some new and innovative information.

yale*The Beinecke is Yale’s primary Special Collections library, and its collections are primarily comprised of unpublished manuscripts and rare books.  Schomburg Collection for Research in Black CultureThe Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is a special collection that is part of the New York Public Library, and is located near the 125th Street MetroNorth train station.