Researcher Profiles: Erica Deschak

This is the second in a new series on researchers who use our collections. Meet Erica Deschak! Here are her thoughts on the research process and the special collections of George Mason University Libraries.

Please tell us a little about yourself:

My name is Erica Deschak. I turned 21 last week, I’m a junior at George Mason University majoring in History. I would like to minor in either linguistics or literature.

Describe your research project:

My research project is an archival paper about local history. I used George Mason’s Special Collections and Archives to research the League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area, and their views on the local juvenile justice system.

How did you find the collections here at SC&A?

I took History 300 with Professor Laura Moore this past semester (Fall 2011). On our first day of class, she took us to Special Collections to meet
Leah [Richardson], and to get some basic exposure to archives; procedures, folders, boxes etc.

How did you learn to conduct primary source research?

As a student, I have been exposed to primary source research before, but this semester allowed me to further my research a lot more. English 302 with Professor Saunders, History 352 with Professor Ritterhouse… I had many opportunities to do “original” research.

Advice on primary source research for other undergraduates or first-time researchers?

When doing archival research for the first time, take your time, and write down EVERYTHING. Pay attention to details. Everything has meaning.

What are your impressions of GMU? The archives?

Mason has been a great experience so far.  Special Collections is not intimidating. It’s for students and scholars, and everyone I talked to was extremely helpful. It made my research paper a lot more enjoyable.

Researcher Profile: Suzanne Walker

Suzanne Walker has been in our reading room diligently working with the Federal Theatre Project collections for the last three weeks. Suzanne was kind enough to allow me to interview her about her project. This is the first in what will become a frequent series of profiles with some of our researchers.

Please tell us a little about yourself:

I am twenty-one years old and go to school at Barnard College. I am majoring
in American Studies, concentrating in media and popular culture 1900-1945.

Can you describe your research project?

My research project centers on the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), which operated from 1935-1939 under the umbrella of the Works Progress Administration, and remains the only instance in the United States’ history of a federally funded andoperated theatre. This project will culminate in the writing of my senior thesis for the American Studies major at Barnard. Ever since I learned of the Federal Theatre Project’s existence, I’ve been fascinated by the possibilities and contradictions inherent in the creation of a national theatre. As I learned more about the history of the FTP, I became particularly interested in the relationship between director Hallie Flanagan’s artistic goals and the day-to-day operations of the small regional theatres. As national director of the Federal Theatre Project, Flanagan harbored ambitious goals both to provide relief to unemployed actors and to create a uniquely “American” theatre relevant to its audience. Flanagan’s definition of an “American” theatre relied on the development of homegrown, local theatres with distinctly regional characters, and my thesis explores to what extent her vision was actually carried out. By focusing on the relationship among
Flanagan, her administration, and the numerous regional directors scattered across the country, I hope to demonstrate that Flanagan’s vision of what constituted American theatre could not always be universally applied, and that artistic minds across the country were forced to modify her vision for political, artistic, and economic purposes.

How did you find the collections here at George Mason University’s archives?

Nearly all the bibliographies in books about the Federal Theatre Project reference the playscript and Oral History collections at SC&A, so it seemed like a good place to come to!

How did you learn about primary source research?

My first real experience conducting primary source research was when I worked as a research assistant last summer. One of the archivists showed me how to search for particular sources with the online catalogue, and very patiently showed me how to use the microfilm machine. From there it was a lot of diving in and learning through my own trial and error.

Do you have any advice on primary source research for other undergraduate students or first-time researchers?

Don’t be discouraged if you can’t find what you’re looking for right away—sometimes you’ll find something you were looking for days ago in a place where you least expected it. Also, don’t necessarily start off with a specific idea or thesis. The deeper you get into research the more you will realize that your preconceived notions are never quite in line with how things actually played out. Start out with a very broad idea of what you’re looking for—the documents will speak for themselves.

What are your impressions of George Mason University? The archives? The DC area?

All three seem absolutely lovely! I’ve been quite impressed with the GMU campus/facilities, and everyone at the archives has been incredibly friendly and helpful. I still haven’t done much in the DC area other than touristy history stuff, but I’m excited to keep exploring!

Archival Instruction

Over the past few years we have hosted an increasing number of classes each semester in our reading room, much to our delight. One of our goals as a department is to reach more undergraduate students and introduce them to the joys of archival research. This past week we had over 20 undergraduate students here to learn about primary sources and how to begin including primary sources into their research. The class was HIST 389: The Civil Rights Movement and in the instruction session we gave them hand-on experience with some of the materials in our collections that relate to the Civil Rights Movement. These collections include C. Harrison Mann papers, Ollie Atkins Photograph collection, and the Philp Levy Civil Rights collection.

The students had a great time and several are ready to get into the reading room to begin working on their next assignment.

Here is the presentation that we included: