#CharlestonSyllabus at Vassar

The Vassar Libraries recently added a sampling of titles from the Charleston Syllabus to our Browsing Collection. Below is a personal essay about the difficult public issues related to the South Carolina shootings. The writer, Deb Bucher, is the Assistant Director of the Library for Collection Development and Research Services.

Following the June 17, 2015 murders in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, I began asking myself some questions. What can I do?  What should I have done? Shouldn’t I be more involved in social justice?  Am I wasting my time working at an elite educational institution?  As a white person, I routinely feel bad about the privilege I get based on my skin color, but also completely overwhelmed by the enormity of attempting to rectify the systemic racism that my privilege comes from.  How can I live my life with integrity knowing I’m the beneficiary of unwarranted privilege?  How can I be part of the solution and not the problem?

#CharlestonSyllabus and Libraries

I often turn to books when I have a question that I need answered.  As a child, I went to the library and read biography after biography and learned to appreciate the lives of others and what they faced.  I learned that going to the library encouraged me to think critically about ideas, about my own life and how I live it, and, most especially, how other people experience life.  So my response after Charleston was to do the same.  Fortunately, I have Dr. Chad Williams of Brandeis University to thank for developing the #Charlestonsyllabus, a list of materials directly related to my questions.  After the Charleston murders, he used Twitter to ask for submissions to a list of readings about the history of race relations and racial violence in the United States.  The #Charlestonsyllabus is now a “library” that brings together histories, movies, personal narratives, poetry and other literature that document the lives of African Americans living with and in the systemic racist and violent society we call the United States.

Libraries as Community

But the #Charlestonsyllabus is more than just a library.  As Chad Williams says, “It is a community of people committed to critical thinking, truth telling and social transformation” (http://aaihs.org/resources/charlestonsyllabus/).   So by reading the books on the syllabus, I will be part of a virtual community of people working to change how we think and act in society.  That’s a start, at least.

If you would like to join the #Charlestonsyllabus community, the Vassar librarians have collected just of a few of the titles on the list and have put them on a shelf in the “Browsing Collection” in the lobby of Main Library.  I invite you look at those titles and take one home.  For the full list, see our guide, http://libguides.vassar.edu/charleston, or the #Charlestonsyllabus website, http://aaihs.org/resources/charlestonsyllabus/.

I believe that libraries are transformative and radical places; I expect the #Charlestonsyllabus to be that kind of library for me, and I hope it is for you as well.

Welcome to a New Year!

Posted on behalf of Andy Ashton, Director of the Libraries.

Welcome back — and for freshmen, welcome! The Library is a wonderful place to find the information you need for your research interests, a quiet area for study or contemplation, or a place to check out a good book or movie. We’re looking forward to a great new year.

Zines collection

VCL ZinesOver the summer, the library put the finishing touches on a project to make our zines collection available to you.  Zines are a DIY, self-published medium, incorporating voices and narratives frequently absent from more traditional publishing venues.  Our collection includes materials from a wide variety of voices and perspectives, including three Vassar student organization zines.  And we’re looking for more!  As curator Heidy Berthoud noted, [Misc. News 26 Feb 2015 – p7] “We would love to have students make zines and donate them to the collection, because we really want them to record what’s important to students on campus right now, and what their thoughts are.”

zine lounge

The new zines space — our zines lounge — is located next to the Periodical Room (Room 255) on the second floor of the Main Library.  We encourage you to visit, read, and contact us (zines@vassar.edu or @vassarzines) with any questions or zines you’d like to donate.

Kanopy – Streaming Video

Following our trial last spring, we are now using Kanopy to stream films. Kanopy works directly with filmmakers and film distribution companies to offer award-winning collections including titles from Kino Lorber, California Newsreel and the Criterion Collection.

La Habanera

La Habanera, Douglas Sirk, 1937

Access Kanopy through the Databases page on our website, or go directly to Vassar’s connection at http://vassar.kanopystreaming.com.libproxy.vassar.edu/.

Director’s Office

Andrew Ashton

Andrew Ashton, Director of Libraries

On a personal note, I am excited to begin our new semester as well.  I joined Vassar as Director of the Libraries in mid-August and I am enjoying getting to know the students and faculty.  Vassar’s innovative and dynamic curriculum provides lots of opportunities to explore how the library can continue to be a critical partner in the academic life of the college.  I look forward to our new academic year – and I hope to see you in the library!

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.