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Selected Topics

Frontispiece of The Lady’s Polite Secretary,
or  New Female Letter Writer by
Du Bois. London: Printed for J. Coote and
T. Evans, 1771. Call Number: A773.

The 2021 National History Day theme is "Communication in History: The Key to Understanding."

Spencer Research Library is full of written communications between individuals in a variety of formats including letters, photog

Below are some topics that are related to this theme and can be researched using materials at Spencer Research Library.

This list isn't comprehensive. There are many, many other topics and collections you can investigate at Spencer! You can get other ideas for topics by exploring other sections of Spencer's website – including collection overviews and online exhibitions – and KU Libraries' digital collections. Of particular interest for this year's theme are the online exhibits "Histories of the English Language" and "Books of Hours: The Art of Devotion."

If one of the below topics interests you, Spencer librarians can help with locating and interpreting specific primary sources.

The History and Development of Writing Technologies

Throughout history, humans have developed a variety of ways to record and share information – typically utilizing materials readily available in their region of the world such as clay or papyrus. With new technological developments, writing systems have embraced these advancements to make sharing recorded information more widespread and efficient.

In addition to the holdings related to Gutenberg and his printing press – one of the most noteworthy developments in the history of recorded information – Spencer houses several examples of different writing technologies that have been used historically from all over the world. Notable items include a collection of cuneiform tablets from ancient Mesopotamia, an Egyptian papyrus scroll, and a palm-leaf manuscript created in southern India, and numerous bound manuscripts and loose manuscript collections. Spencer's collections also include facsimiles (reproductions that simulate the appearance of the original as closely as possible) of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican codices; examples can be seen in the online exhibit "In the Shadow of Cortés: From Veracruz to Mexico City." Not only do these items demonstrate some different writing technologies, they also show how the historical needs for recorded information have changed throughout the years from purely record keeping utility to sharing ideas and stories.

New writing technologies continue to be developed. A twentieth-century example in Spencer's collections is Victory Mail, commonly called V-Mail. This process was developed in 1942 to more efficiently transport the immense amount of correspondence generated between military personnel and their families during World War II.

The History and Development of Visual Communication Technologies

Visual materials - produced alone or as part of a larger textual work - can be powerful communication tools. Spencer's collections include a variety of visual materials including photographs, illustrations, drawings, cartoons, and maps. These items provide a wealth of potential History Day topics. A project could explore the development and significance of a specific type of visual communication like woodcut illustrations, lithography, stereoview photographs, or Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. Relatedly, a project could examine the history of a specific type of equipment, such as early photographic cameras. Another direction for a project could explore what a particular symbol or image has, in the past and present, communicated about a event, person, group, place, or idea. For example, what is the importance of mascots in communicating an organization's ideals or, sometimes, how an organization has failed to live up to those ideals? How have depictions of KU's Jayhawk mascot evolved over the course of over one hundred years? Other examples of visual communication technologies can be found in several of the other topic descriptions on this page.

Johannes Gutenberg and the Invention of the Printing Press

Johannes Gutenberg introduced Europe to printing through his invention of the printing press and movable type in the mid-fifteenth century. The advent of printed books and documents allowed for information and ideas to circulate quickly and made the written word more accessible to the general population. Spencer's holdings include a leaf from an original Gutenberg Bible (the first book Gutenberg printed), as well as a twentieth-century facsimile of a full Gutenberg Bible. The library also holds a variety of resources related to the history and development of printing that can help provide additional information and context for Gutenberg’s contribution to human history.

This pivotal moment of innovation also played an important role in the development of several historical movements in European culture and society, including the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution (which are described in more detail below). 

Circulating New Ideas: The Protestant Reformation and the European Wars of Religion

In the sixteenth century, many people began to raise questions and concerns about the teachings and actions of the Roman Catholic Church – most notably Martin Luther with the publication of his Ninety-five Theses in 1517. Several factions of Christians broke away from Catholicism and the authority of the Papacy, establishing Protestantism throughout Europe and setting off a series of events and conflicts known as the Protestant Reformation and European Wars of Religion. The accessibility of printing allowed for the rapid spread of the information and opinions challenging the Roman Catholic Church.

Spencer's collections include a sizable number of materials related to the people and conflicts associated with the Protestant Reformation. While many of the library's items are not printed in English, the value of these holdings is in their connection to this chaotic time in history and how the Reformation shaped the future of Europe and Christianity. Items include published writings by Martin Luther as well as writings and sermons in defense of both Protestantism and Catholicism. Students interested in this topic may need to choose a specific event or person within this broad time period.

Disseminating Scientific Discoveries: The Scientific Revolution

The holdings at Spencer include materials documenting the history of science, including works by prominent contributors to the Scientific Revolution. The Scientific Revolution was a period in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries marked by discoveries in mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology, and chemistry. Many of these discoveries are the basis for modern scientific theories and methodology. With the advent of printing, scientists were able to quickly access and distribute information, allowing for better collaboration. Additionally, printing provided a more accurate record of scientific data by eliminating some of the human error that comes with handwritten copies of information.

The library’s collections include writings by and related to the scientists and mathematicians working during the Scientific Revolution. Notable items include a 1617 copy of Nicolaus Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium as well as a first-edition copy of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia and a second-edition copy of his Opticks. While some of these items are printed in Latin, they all contain diagrams to better convey the information and ideas of the authors.

Also notable in Spencer’s history of science holdings are items related to John Gould, the renowned nineteenth-century ornithological illustrator. Gould’s illustrations demonstrate how visual materials (drawings, diagrams, graphs, etc.) are helpful for conveying scientific information. In addition to copies of all of Gould’s major works, the library also houses over 2,000 sketches, annotated drawings, water-colors, tissue drawing and tracings, and twelve lithographic stones. For more information about John Gould and his illustrations, see the online exhibit "John Gould: Bird Illustration in the Age of Darwin" and the digitized Gould collection.

Communications Between Indigenous Peoples and American Settlers in Kanas and on the Great Plains

Sources on this topic at Spencer document the interactions between American settlers - including immigrants, government agencies, the military, and railroads - and indigenous peoples in Kansas and the region. Many of these sources document settlers' interactions with - and often violent conquest of - Native Americans. Subtopics include the loss of tribal lands and changes to indigenous education, cultures, languages, and religions. Most sources date from the mid-1800s into the twentieth century. Represented tribes include the Delaware, Wyandot, and Pottawatomie. Also documented is the history of Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence.

Most sources about this topic at Spencer were written by settlers, from their perspective, to and about tribes. Materials at Spencer about this topic include tribal records, government documents and reports, letters, journals, photographs, maps, books, and collections of independent and academic researchers. Notable items about this topic include an 1806 letter from President Thomas Jefferson to tribal leaders from areas that are now part of Kansas and Missouri.

Campaign Materials of the Women's Suffrage Movement

The ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment prohibited the federal government and each state from denying citizens the right to vote on the basis of sex. This victory for women’s rights came after decades of protests, demonstrations, and legislative attempts of varying degrees of success. A key part of the success of the movement was the dissemination of the ideas and arguments in favor of Woman’s Suffrage through speeches, newspapers, and other published campaign materials. 

Spencer's holdings include perspectives and campaign materials from both the national pro- and anti-suffrage movements. The library's collections also document the history of women's suffrage in Kansas, the first state to hold a referendum (when citizens directly vote on an issue) on women’s suffrage in 1867. Although the referendum was defeated, it inspired other western states to hold similar referendums. Kansas recognized a woman’s right to vote in local elections in 1887. In 1912, eight years before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, Kansas voters approved the Equal Suffrage Amendment to the state constitution. Kansas thus became the eighth state to grant full suffrage to women. Researchers using Spencer's collections will also find materials related to women’s suffrage on an international level.

For more information about Spencer materials related to this topic, see the KU Libraries Women's Suffrage Resource Guide.

Organizational Ephemera: Communicating Ideas, Beliefs, and Philosophies

Since the 1990s, organizations of all types (e.g. political, cultural, religious, charitable) have harnessed the power of the Internet for a variety of communications. Through their websites and email, organizations can connect with current members, recruit new members, document activities and events, and convey ideas, beliefs, and philosophies. How did organizations accomplish all this before the Internet? They might have printed and mailed a variety of physical items such as pamphlets, periodicals, flyers, newsletters, brochures, mailings, posters, bumper stickers, and organizational membership mailings. These items are called ephemera: materials that are created for a specific, limited purpose and generally designed to be discarded after use.

Ephemera created by organizations can be found throughout Spencer's collections, particularly the Wilcox Collection of Contemporary Political Movements. The Wilcox Collection is one of the largest assemblages of twentieth-century left- and right-wing U.S. materials in the nation. It includes information on more than 10,000 individuals and organizations engaged with a variety of contemporary issues such as student protests of the Vietnam War era (1963-1975), communism, civil rights, the religious right, tax protest and antigovernment movements, race relations, and women's rights. More information about the Wilcox Collection – including examples of digitized materials – can be found in the online exhibit "Free Speech in America: Wilcox Collection at 50."

Documents of Protest at the University of Kansas, 1960-1975

Well-documented by primary sources in KU's University Archives is the wave of student activism that took place on campus during the 1960s and 1970s. Specifically, through sit-ins, protests, and other actions, African American students fought for civil rights at the university, protesting against racial discrimination on campus and in Lawrence. During the same time period, KU students protested against the Vietnam War.

Documents in the University Archives capture wildly different perspectives about KU students' activism during this time period and reflect multiple types of communication between the groups that were involved. For example, records from the Chancellor's Office capture internal deliberations among administrators – including the private and more uncensored beliefs of individual leaders – and document meetings between students and administrators. These records also contain letters to the chancellor from constituents and alumni across Kansas. Reading about the protests in their local newspapers, these campus stakeholders wrote to criticize or support the students' protests or the administration's response. External communications from the administration can be found in unpublished records, press releases, and publications such as the Graduate Magazine. On the other hand, student protestors and activists used a variety of methods to communicate their ideas and demands, including flyers and publications like the Jayhawker yearbook, University Daily Kansan student newspaper, and more radical underground student newspapers. Photographs show the signs and messages that students carried during protests. For more information on this topic, see the "African American Rights, Activities, and Movements: University Archives" library guide.

Communicating Verbally: Oral Histories

The Oral History Association notes that "oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s and now using 21st-century digital technologies." Through the recording of people’s memories, oral histories give voice to events and periods of the past. 

Spencer Research Library has a variety of oral history collections in its holdings, and many have accompanying transcripts. War experiences are documented through interviews with veterans in the World War II: The African American Experience oral histories. Hispanic and Latino immigrants living in Kansas City, Kansas, were interviewed as part of a 2003 oral history project called MYgration Stories. The University Archives in Spencer Research Library houses a collection of more than 500 interviews with retired KU faculty, staff, and spouses. The recorded narratives capture the challenges and successes faced by these individuals throughout their lives, at KU and beyond. See the online exhibit In Their Own Words: Selected Interviews from the Endacott Society Oral History Collection for a sampling.


Caitlin Donnelly Klepper
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