Stamping American Memory: Collectors, Citizens, and the PostSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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During my first year at Bates College, I selected a work study job at the campus post office where I sorted and delivered mail, weighed packages to be sent across country and abroad, and generated money orders. I worked there for four years and never once considered researching stamps or the postal service. And yet it became formative in my professional and personal development. Similarly, I always collected things at different stages of my life, but never stamps. It wasn’t until I started working at a museum that I began to see how different objects came into museum collections and how one person’s personal fascination with certain things transformed everyday objects into artifacts through the process of accessioning. This experience triggered my curiosity about the areas of collecting practices, memory studies, and material culture. During graduate school, when a family stamp collection arrived, I realized that I had a starting point for a bigger project.
I intended to write a synthetic history of collecting in the United States, but after some research found an enormous number of philatelic sources that scholars barely touched. My adviser at the time, the late Roy Rosenzweig, encouraged me to follow those sources and to focus on stamps and stamp collecting. I worried that the topic would be too narrow and, frankly, that I would grow bored. I never expected to discover that stamp collecting was so engrained in American culture in the early twentieth century that it was the subject of hundreds of popular press articles and radio shows and used by department stores to promote sales. Or that the topic and practice figured into movie scripts like Charade, fiction like The Crying of Lot 49, or one-liners delivered by Groucho Marx in Duck Soup. Stamps and stamp collecting mattered, and I found good stories that connected collectors, noncollectors, and the US government in dialogues over the subjects of commemorative stamps because people cared about how those subjects represented the United States as a nation and an ideal.
The ideas embedded in this book and digital monograph were shaped, influenced, and supported by many people during its formation. I started this research under Roy’s guidance. At many times throughout this project, I wished for his counsel. I was lucky to have learned from him as my teacher and adviser, boss and mentor. I came to the PhD program at George Mason University because of him, and I remained to work at the place now named for him, the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.
A major part of Roy’s legacy is the ethics he embedded in the work and the staff at the Center. The commitment to openness—to new ideas, collaborations, open-source software, open-access publishing—permeates our work there and work my colleagues and I do outside of the Center. The free, online version of Roy and Dan Cohen’s 2005 book, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, motivated me to seek out publishers who would be amenable to a hybrid publication that includes a free, open-access, digital version. This is what led me to the University of Michigan Press and its Digital Culture Books division. The Press was one of the first academic publishers to invite scholars to experiment with form, review, and collaboration in digital formats. I am grateful to the Press and the Humanities, Arts, Science, Technology Collaborative (HASTAC) for creating opportunities that encourage junior scholars to publish digitally and for awarding me a Digital Humanities Publication Prize in 2012 to create Stamping American Memory as a hybrid publication.
I never intended to publish a print monograph. I wanted to create a long-form, open-access, digital project that invited commentary and underwent an open peer review process that might grow in a digital space into something far beyond my own ideas and sources. Developing, designing, and shepherding digital work, however, is challenging. What I developed resides at stampingamericanmemory.org, and, here is the print monograph. The print form retains some elements of the digital, because I wrote and revised with online readers in mind. The digital version contains more images and more discreet sections, but the ideas and the sources remain the same, and I hope you as the reader find this style works in print.
As I waded into the options for publishing Stamping American Memory digitally, I sought and received guidance from colleagues and friends who themselves successfully pushed back on traditional publishing formats and shared lessons they learned, including Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Dan Cohen, Tom Scheinfeldt, and Jack Dougherty. I am also grateful for those who generously volunteered their time to review this work during the open peer review process, who received no compensation but did so because they were interested this work and in participating in this type of review. Many thanks go to Denise Meringolo, Clarissa Ceglio, Ivan Greenberg, and Alyssa Anderson.
My research relies heavily on sources maintained locally and shared digitally from the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. The Postal Museum was one of the first history museums in the United States to launch a collections database filled with deep descriptive metadata and images. Arago: People, Postage & Post has been critically important to my work, and the images found in my digital and print publication draw heavily from sources in Arago I examined closely on my computer screen at home, and returned to over and over. This type of openness exemplifies how sharing collections online furthers scholarly research. The Postal Museum’s librarians and curators are responsive and helpful. This is also true of the staff at the American Philatelic Society, all of whom are genuinely pleased when researchers approach them about accessing records, objects, and special collections.
I feel lucky to be part of George Mason University’s history department, which values and supports digital history scholarship. Throughout the project’s development, I relied on feedback, advice, and support from my dissertation adviser, Alison Landsberg, and committee member Michael O’Malley, as well other members of the faculty, especially Christopher Hamner, Mills Kelly, Lincoln Mullen, and Rosemarie Zagarri. My GMU classmates saw this project develop and helped me to sort out problematic pieces over many years and cheered me on along the way: Bill Carpenter, Katja Hering, Chris Hughes, Jenny Landsbury, Steve Saltzgiver, Kevin Shupe, and Rob Townsend. Susan Smulyan at Brown University has been a mentor and friend for twenty years who always offers the advice I need, rather than telling me what I want to hear. Stamping American Memory is better because of all of you.
Since 2005, I have worked with many smart people at the Center for History and New Media who embody Roy’s vision. You all challenge me, make me smarter, and indulge my desire to discuss details about food and popular culture at the dev table in between our work sprints and meetings. I am grateful for the lasting friendships developed over these years, and for the opportunities to collaborate and consult on many important digital projects. The Center is a unique place, particularly for its legacy of hiring and preparing individuals to do digital humanities work across it many forms. This is evident in the list of innovators and leaders who now count as Center alumni. From that list, there are a few individuals in particular, Sharon Leon, Lisa Rhody, and Joan Troyano, who have supported me through the ups and downs of this project and other personal challenges in countless ways. Thank you.
To my family and dear friends whom I do not see nearly as often as I would like, thanks for providing me with endless happy distractions via Facebook, emoji-filled texts, and kind notes. I am grateful to be part of a large family, fictive and consanguinal, filled with strong women. My mom, Ann Brennan, in particular, continues to push through difficult challenges during her life with an enviable amount of inner strength. Thank you for leading by example. My brother Marty and I are doing all right, because of you. I look forward to celebrating the end of this project with you both, Jada, and Ian.
To Ian, who pushes me to be more observant and creative than I am on my own and encourages me to step away from my laptop, I look forward to discovering more new things with you, and to the next big thing.