Research by Proxy: In the Manuscripts Reading Room with Chelsey Geisz

While Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections continually adds new digital content to our online archival photograph database and oral history interview collections, most of the thousands of pages of records in our collections can only be accessed in the Manuscripts Reading Room. We frequently receive inquiries from researchers who are unable to travel to use the collections, and so keep a list of local researchers who provide research and scanning services to distance patrons as “proxy researchers.” This week, we sat down with Chelsey Geisz for a behind-the-scenes look at proxy research in the Archives.

Chelsey Geisz is in her final semester of Wheaton College Graduate School’s MA in Systematic Theology. For the last year and a half, she has also served as a proxy researcher and a research assistant for a major College history project. Because of her work as a research assistant, she has the dubious distinction of likely being the only person alive who has read every Wheaton student publication from 1860-2000!

What has been your experience with proxy research?

Proxy research provides an opportunity to read primary source texts about topics I’ve never even imagined. For instance, last semester I got to dive into some of the controversy surrounding the CIA’s use of overseas missionaries for gathering information—a fascinating slice of history I’d never encountered before. It’s always interesting to hear what projects people are working on, and I enjoy helping them complete some of the research necessary for their finished product.

Are there types of projects you particularly enjoy working on?

One or two of my proxy research assignments has involved looking through old photographs, which can be an enjoyable rest for my eyes after hours of reading.

How would you characterize the three major Wheaton student publications – the Tower, Record, and the Kodon? What are the values of each to an understanding of Wheaton College history?

Without a doubt, the most important student publication in Wheaton’s history is the Record. As we often lamented in our review of College history, there is a frustrating paucity of documentation for many aspects of the school’s past, particularly in the pre-WWII era. However, even during the decades when few materials survived, the Record faithfully provides an account of Wheaton’s community life and the activities of students, faculty, and administration week in and week out.

While the Tower doesn’t provide nearly the same level of documentation that’s captured by the Record, it does offer something invaluable: photo evidence. For instance, during our research into College history, we were stymied by the fact that Wheaton did not consistently keep student records for large swaths of our institutional history. Often the Tower was our best source for tracking certain student demographics. To gather more information on students, our research process sometimes involved hopping from the Tower to to US census data or military draft cards for countless students whose tiny yearbook entries were the most data we had. Because the Tower was first published in 1922, we have extremely limited access to any sort of demographic information for the first sixty years of Wheaton’s history, but we can piece together a fuller picture of our student body just by starting with the yearbook.

Lastly, the Kodon was least helpful historically but the most fun to read. Although it doesn’t offer much in terms of Wheaton’s institutional history, it provides a time capsule of Wheaton student culture. From its inception, the Kodon was notorious for pushing boundaries, and much can be learned about a community by observing what it deems scandalous.

Are there any broad trends or changes you have noticed across the publications throughout their history? Thematically and/or stylistically?

Yes, as expected, the 1903 Record looks vastly different from 1993 Record. Based on the tone and content of the Record, I really sensed the transition between different epochs in Wheaton student culture and Evangelical Christianity more broadly. Personally, I found that the Record became significantly more enjoyable to read during the 60’s. By the 80’s and 90’s, it would actually make me laugh out loud. There were many years in those decades that the Record won national awards, and it showed—Wheaton turned out a very quality student newspaper.

Despite the profound changes of the twentieth century, many things remained the same. As a Wheaton student myself, I was often amused by the continual lament about Wheaton’s dating culture that can be found in every decade of the school’s history. The same gripe that I heard as a freshman in 2016 (i.e., there’s no casual dating because female students assign so much meaning to first dates that it deters male students from making a move at all) has been echoing through Wheaton dorm rooms for over a century. Maybe someday Wheaton students will solve the problem of casual dating—but don’t hold your breath!

Did you have any favorite publications or years of the publications? Any articles or writers you want to particularly highlight?

Yes, the 80’s and 90’s of the Record were definitely my favorite. Especially during the early 90’s, the newspaper turned out an extremely quality entertainment section that featured top-notch movie and music reviews. I’ve actually gotten into 90’s music and movies because of their recommendations! There was also a hilarious columnist, Matt Myers ’96, whose weekly articles would make me laugh out loud every time I read them—in my opinion his column was by far the best in the history of the Record.

Matt Myers humor column, “Below the Hard Deck” in the September 29, 1995 Record.

Throughout this project you have worked with both the physical and digitized versions of the publications. How would you compare archival research work with material vs. digital sources?

I really prefer the physical version over the digitized version. Reading thousands of pages of tiny print is never easy, but it’s much less fun when it’s even smaller print on a computer screen. It’s also difficult to make out the pictures in the digitized version.

Any ideas or recommendations for future research projects using these publications?

The possibilities for future projects with the Wheaton student publications are virtually endless. Personally, I would love to juxtapose narratives of James E. Burr’s grave across the twentieth century to demonstrate how Wheaton reimagined its racial institutional history in the 60’s and 70’s. I could also love to learn more about Wheaton’s home economics major, which was quite popular for many years.

Is there any advice you would give to those new to archival research?

Ha! Brace yourself. As an MA student, I’m no stranger to library research, but archival research is a whole different game. It’s significantly more challenging, but it can also be more rewarding when you finally run across a shred of documentation you’ve been searching for. Prior to this project, I had never realized the enormous amount of labor that goes into writing history, and although it sounds obvious, I didn’t have much appreciation for how vastly complex the past can be. In many cases, I think we crave a simple story with clear heroes and villains, but this kind of primary source research defies that impulse at every turn. If I had to give one piece of advice, it would be this: prepare yourself to be humbled and surprised by people and stories that are far more complicated than you ever imagined. Also, there’s one chair in the Reading Room that’s more comfortable than all the rest—if you find it, your neck and back will thank you!

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