President's Perspective: Smithipedia

Over the past four years, student “Smithipedists” have built a fascinating and valuable resource.

by Carol Christ

Carol ChristTo understand the contexts in which we live—our families, our cities and towns, our countries— we need to understand the past we share. The habit of historical thinking is fundamental to a liberal education. In developing this capacity, students should learn to use not only secondary sources but primary materials—archives, artifacts—through which they can construct stories that have not been told or that should be told anew.

At Smith we are fortunate to have two remarkable archives—the Sophia Smith Collection, an internationally recognized repository of manuscripts, archives, photographs, periodicals, and other primary sources in women’s history, and the Smith College Archives. Many of our faculty members have used materials in these archives for student projects over the years; more recently, faculty have developed a concentration—a new curricular opportunity combining classwork with experiential learning—in Archives. (Other concentrations focus on museums, poetry, bio-math, Buddhist studies, South Asia, book studies, and sustainable food.)

When I arrived at Smith nine years ago, I was surprised to discover that the college had no single comprehensive written history that linked the people, traditions, and events fundamental to the college’s identity—the efforts of the Smith College Relief Unit, organized by alumnae to do relief work during and after World War I and commemorated by the Grécourt Gates; the founding of the School for Social Work for the purpose of training clinicians to treat shell-shocked soldiers returning from World War I; the long sister relationship between Smith and Gin Ling College in China, lasting from 1916 to 1950; the prosecution of three homosexual faculty members during the national anti-smut campaign in 1960 (described by Barry Werth in The Scarlet Professor); the many struggles for social justice led by students over the last several decades.

When I was developing a project four years ago that would provide the opportunity for me to work with STRIDE students (our most accomplished incoming first-year students, who are offered a research assistantship with a faculty member), I first imagined writing a history of the college that would contain these stories and many others. In talking with our excellent archivist, Nanci Young, she convinced me that a better form for the project would be an online encyclopedia. Thus, Smithipedia was born. Over the past four years, I have worked with thirteen students—the “Smithipedists”—on the project, and they have built a fascinating and valuable resource.

I’ve encouraged the students to follow their interests, and they have made some remarkable discoveries. Natalie Sargent ’12 has been researching the story of the British children sheltered in Northampton (and the President’s House) from the bombing of Britain. Last year, Kaitlin Hovanes ’12 discovered the history of secret societies at Smith—the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Orangemen; since then, I’ve spoken with alumnae who were members. Kaitlin has also researched social dances throughout Smith history and ghost stories. Alexandra Ghiz ’12 wrote a series of articles on the history of all things musical at Smith, including a catalog of its bells. Natasha Zuniga ’13 has been working on buildings—finding information about the atom smasher once in Lilly Hall and the social hall in College Hall; Natasha is now working on the history of student activism at Smith. Emma Forrest ’11 did research on the Smith College Relief Unit, and Fatima Vasconez ’10 hunted down as many references as she could find to Smith in popular culture. The Smithipedists have learned how to take oral histories, and they have begun to post stories of alumnae, including Gloria Heath ’43, a pioneering aviator and key figure in aviation safety, and Nell Taylor ’51, who, as president of the SGA, made headlines as “The First Negro to Lead Smith Student Council.”

You can read all of these articles, and more on the site:

I have written this column both to encourage you to explore the site, and, even more importantly, to contribute to it. The history of the college rests in your experience. At Smith I have been deeply moved by the daily realization of the generations of women who have walked the same paths, lived and worked in the same buildings, found beauty in the same vistas. We can only know that history in a full way by discovering and telling it. Smithipedia is a small effort in that direction, providing everyone in the Smith community some understanding of the remarkable story of which we are a part.