By: Ellen Glover, Bicentennial Intern, Class of 2018, Journalism, Bloomington
As a journalism student, I never thought I was going to spend my summer knee deep in research at Indiana University’s Archives, investigating my school’s past. Sure I like history, but how is this supposed to help me with my dream of becoming a magazine writer?
I thought to myself when I got offered the position in April. Little did I know this internship would be one of the most significant learning experiences for me as a journalist. Here are three of the most important story-telling tips I have learned while wading in the depths of the archives:
1. Everybody has a story
Sometimes, at least for me, it is hard to relate to or sympathize with people who were alive 200 years ago. They are simply figures from the past, static in time, and it is easy to pigeonhole them and oversimplify their lives. However, in conducting in-depth research on people for two months now, I’ve learned that absolutely everybody has an interesting story; you just have to look hard enough.
I learned this when one day, as I was reading old, hand-written letters from the 1800’s, I stumbled upon a strange little piece of paper with a messy, angry-looking paragraph scrawled on it. After decoding the generally awful handwriting everyone seemed to have in the 1800’s, I discovered that this passive-aggressive letter was written by Daniel Kirkwood, a longtime IU professor in the 1800’s. Kirkwood was, generally, a beloved figure. He has a building, observatory and street named after him and was even known as “Daddy Kirkwood.”
“I want my money,” Kirkwood wrote to a man named John A. Hand. According to the letter, if he did not get his “money” and “papers,” Kirkwood would resort to something he didn’t want to do. What this was all about still remains a mystery to me, but I am excited to look into it further. For now, it is interesting to know that even “Daddy Kirkwood” had a dark side.
2. Always have pictures
As a journalist, I am definitely more of a writer. I’ve always understood the importance of photographs in journalism but now I am in full appreciation of the photographer’s hard work. Especially in IU’s early days, it is hard to imagine what Bloomington was like just from correspondence between the individuals that lived there. Photographs of the people and places that were at IU in its inception has given me an understanding and connection to them that could have never been achieved by simply reading about them.
An example would be when I was researching a couple from the 1860’s, Mathilda and Owen Klopsch, who met and fell in love at IU. I had spent hours agonizing over who they were, with very little success. I desperately wished I could talk to them, I just wanted to get to know them beyond the basic information you get from Ancestry.com. I decided to look them up in the 1868 Arbutus yearbook. After scanning through the tiny print, I finally found them.
Owen looked tall and lanky and Mathilda wore her blond curly hair in a knot on the top of her head. Something about seeing their faces made them even more real to me, it allowed me to connect with them better than any census data ever could. So I learned, no matter how much you write about a person, the best way to have the audience to connect with your subject is to see their face.
3. Primary sources are a gold mine
There are different ways to grasp a full understanding of a person who is no longer with us. I try to find any articles written about them, any papers they had written, their census data to track where they went in life; but I most enjoy reading their letters. Since most of the people I have been researching have died and made them unavailable for interview, I’ve found that the best way to get information about how they were thinking and feeling in particular points in their lives are best captured in the letters they write.
This was best exemplified when I found myself in a deep rabbit hole one day. I had originally wanted to do a bit of research on some WWII soldiers who were connected to IU. Instead, I spent a day reading love letters between IU alum Myron Greene and his wife, Lovilla. The two met at IU and married, then Myron became a dentist for the army.
The saddest part of their correspondence was when, after several years of almost constant separation, the two were planning to buy a house so they could be together more often. Plans were made, money was exchanged for the house, and they both were excited. However, all of this changed when, a few weeks later, in December 1941, Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor. Myron was sent to Europe, separating the lovebirds even further.
Luckily, the two were eventually reunited and lived a long and happy life together. Before this summer, I had no idea such an amazing story could exist in one cardboard box of seventy-year-old letters.