History: one of the most beloved and hated areas of study. While some enjoy it, many complain that it is too boring, difficult to read or just irrelevant. However, Dr. Rebecca Koerselman and Dr. Douglas Anderson’s History of Northwestern project seeks to break those stereotypes and provide a way for students, alum and professors to connect with NW by means of its past. In 2016, President Christy himself approached Anderson, archivist and librarian, about compiling and writing a comprehensive history of the institution. Without any more information or specification, Anderson began his research and recruited Koerselman from the history department to aid with research and to be a co-author. The purpose of a project like this, according to Koerselman, is to provide a basis for what NW is. “When you apply for jobs, you want to know about the institution and its history,” she said. “You want to know what you are affiliated with.” Anderson echoed this, saying that for him, the goal of the project is to “provide understanding and material for understanding.” They hope that it will provide more information about the school for those who are associated with it as well as people looking in.
This is no average history paper. NW is a complex institution that represents a variety of students, interests and beliefs over the span of 140 years. It has a rich academic, religious, social, athletic and artistic history, and each one of these topics has thousands of related documents in the archives of the Learning Commons, not to mention state and church records. The two professors also have conducted interviews with alumni and faculty about their experiences. Long story short, this is a huge undertaking. Anderson spent a year just reading through the Beacon articles from 1960 to the present. There is no shortage of information and sources, which is why the project has already had its sixth birthday and looks like it will have many more before it is finished. The thousands of pages of notes on Anderson’s desk and filing cabinet are a testament to the importance of this project and his dedication to making sure it is done well. Quality research requires time, so Koerselman and Anderson are making sure to do their job thoroughly and completely.
One of the main points that both professors emphasized is that they do not want this to be melatonin in book form, even though, according to Anderson, “Institutional history is hard to make interesting.” His goal is to create a “…coherent narrative, recognizing that a lot of people might not care about it.” Koerselman also expressed similar aspirations, talking about how she wants the finished product to be something that students want to read. She even had the idea to make it a graphic novel, which would encourage more people to take interest in NW’s history. Whatever form that it takes, they want it to be more than just pages of names, dates and lists, instead something that provides genuine connection to future generations.
Currently, Anderson is researching the Academic Dean’s memos from the 1980s, and while Koerselman is currently busy teaching undergraduate and graduate courses, she hopes to have more time this summer to invest in the project. Despite its challenges and complexities, they both believe that it is worth the trouble. The last written history of NW only covers the years of 1882-1982, and according to Anderson, “There is a lot more that needs to be said.” Chances are, this book will not appear on a list of fun, young-adult reads, but this project is incredibly worthwhile and will have lasting impacts into the next generation. Through the years of research, documents and writing, Koerselman and Anderson hope to provide a better understanding of what NW was in order to shape what it could be.