When she arrived at the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC) as its new director in the fall of 2005, Donna Gabaccia felt a little overwhelmed by the riches that greeted her. But true to form, she was energized by what she found.
by Tim Brady
First, there was the abundance of materials in the IHRC archive itself: a wonderful collection of documents pertaining to immigration between 1880 and 1930, with extensive materials on the experiences of post-war refugees in the last half of the 20th century. Then there was the vast community of scholars: dozens of university faculty members, across numerous disciplines, had scholarly interests that verged on IHRC territory.
Gabaccia needed to get a handle on who these scholars were, how the IHRC might foster their work, and what it could do to serve as a conduit for interdisciplinary collaborations. This was no easy task. “These people are scattered throughout CLA, the Law School, the Medical School, public health, and more,” says Gabaccia.
Add to this the fact that public issues surrounding immigration had begun to heat up in the past year or two, and Gabaccia knew she faced enormous challenges. She and the center needed to be scholarly, topical, and global, and they had to do it on the fly.
One of the first steps IHRC took to meet new challenges was electronic. Its web site was overhauled with a new feature, “Contemporary Perspectives on Immigration History,” which showcases faculty expertise and serves as a blog on immigration-related issues. Visitors to ihrc.umn.edu will find research papers on a variety of topics as well as links to related archival material. Documents once stored in boxes or on microfiche are being digitized and placed on the site as well, making those documents far more accessible to the public.
“We wanted to make the web site less archival and more global,” says Gabaccia. “We also wanted to call attention to the expertise of the faculty at the University of Minnesota, and we wanted to use the web site to connect with our constituencies—public school teachers, students, ethnic groups, and researchers who come to our center.”
The timing for these improvements couldn’t have been better. The Online Encyclopedia Britannica has recently designated IHRC as one of its iGuide web sites, meaning that anyone reading on the subject of immigration in the Encyclopedia Britannica is simply a click away from delving deeper into the subject at IHRC.
But the changes in IHRC aren’t just digital. Programming has been ramped up for the 21st century. For starters, the IHRC has partnered with the Center for Global Studies on a series of events called Global REM—Race, Ethnicity, Migration. A first event in May 2007, called “Revving Up: Global REM,” brought together university faculty from across disciplines to speak to these issues.
Lectures, seminars, and a series of conferences over the next few years will continue the theme, but a first international REM gathering, “Belonging, Membership, and Mobility in Global History,” is already scheduled for April 2008. “The focus of this conference is going to be on the years before 1800,” says Gabaccia. “So much of what we know about issues relating to race, ethnicity, and migration comes from the last 200 years. We want to examine how these issues functioned prior to the advent of nation-states.”
“All of these things draw interest from scholars and professionals from a variety of areas,” says Gabaccia. “The conferences, the REM initiative, and the changes in the web site are all designed to help steer diverse studies, interests, and educational users of IHRC toward each other.”
Collections and more
IHRC has made a significant addition to its archival collections this past year with the arrival of the papers of Professor Sucheng Chang, a renowned emeritus scholar of Asian American Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
As for the IHRC’s future, the center will have to deal with both the opportunities and the difficulties that arise in the digitized world. To some extent new technologies will relieve archival storage problems, but decisions about what to digitize (or not) will undoubtedly be agonizing. And funds for the costs of future collections, electronic or otherwise, will need to be found.
All of which suggests that Gabaccia is going to be no less busy in the months and years to come at IHRC. “But I’m enjoying this,” she says. “With all the challenges and hard work, it remains a pleasure.”