The Genealogy of a Project

The Global Heartland project (GH, for short) has a complicated history. This blog is a late addition to something I have been working on for several years, a digital project with my old employer the Newberry Library. In the next few months we’ll be rolling out a long-delayed redesign of that project, and hopefully opening it for public comment. In the meanwhile, I’ll be posting some draft text for that project, and and some things that are more like “notes.”

But before we go there, allow me to offer a brief genealogy of the project.

It began several years ago during a summer vacation to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Somewhere in the Keewenaw I was reading some text on a map that listed two interesting facts. One was that the Cliff Mine was allegedly the most profitable mine ever (apparently based on investment vs. revenue), and second that the Calumet and Hecla mines earned some millions and millions and millions of dollars (the specifics I now forget) for their Boston investors. I then began a long epiphanic moment that lasted from Hancock all the way to Copper Harbor. Looking at the wooded countryside rushing by my window, pulling into a passed-over Calumet, passing abandoned mine shafts, rocky outcroppings covered in birch and white pine–all of it territory I had been through several times before–the landscape came alive with ghosts. Ghosts of people, ghosts of ore, ghosts of landscapes past; the apparitions swirling about, reaching into the old mines and all the way to Boston, all the way to Finland, into the house I grew up in with its copper sink, and into every early 20th century house in North America wired and plumbed with copper wire.

This out-of-the-way place reached across the globe, into the lives of people whose daily practices gave little or no mind to the chain of connections that linked their kitchen sink and light switch to the drama of immigration, the struggles of mineworkers, and the vast profits to be made from converting the earth’s natural wealth into wires, sinks, and pennies.

Soon after I wrote a proposal for a book called “Transnational Midwest” that would have taken on this topic. Let’s just say the fates of funding were not smiling on that version of the project (in the meanwhile there have been some good books covering similar territory). So I converted the book project into a digital resource project for the Library. If it was funded at least it would keep me working on the topic, and cover some of the costs of my research center. Around the same time I submitted a proposal to a different funder for an exhibition on the history of free speech activism in Chicago. The two projects had slightly different time frames, so it all seemed doable–it always does.

Then my wife announced that she was pregnant with twins. To my great surprise, both projects were funded. Not so surprisingly the twins were born about 9 months later. I finished the text of the exhibit at 9 pm on June 20th, 2004, my wife went into labor at 7 am the next day, and the girls were born 34 hours later. The next few months are still a blur. Not much sleep with two newborns in the house–oh yes, and then we moved to a new apartment. Jen Koslow took over running the center (thanks Jen!!), and I used all my vacation and sick leave to take the summer off. The exhibit opened on October 1st. But my short-term memory didn’t come back for about a year.

It would be fair to say that the project officially known as the “North American Midlands Website Project: Resources for Teaching and Learning American History in a Global Perspective” has suffered from my over-extended commitments, despite the heroic efforts of Doug Knox who stepped in as project director, and Aaron Shapiro our Center’s Assistant Director. In the fall of 2005 I took a job at the UI, and soon discovered that the GH project was utterly incomprehensible to many of my new colleagues–especially the ones who would be voting on my tenure case. This slowed the project down quite a bit as I changed research emphasis in a futile effort to fit the expectations of the department. Recently, that problem was happily taken care of, and I will soon be employed by an institution that at least won’t penalize me for doing the project. So I’m back at work on GH, and happy to be here.

So in the next few weeks I will be posting some project text to this blog, and if my readers would like to comment, you will be contributing to the project as a whole. Also, you may have noticed that I have set up a GH group on Flickr, and I invite you to submit photographs you have taken that reflect connections between the local and global, or the obscuring, hiding, and forgetting of said connections.

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One Response to The Genealogy of a Project

  1. Tim says:

    TH: Despite (or because of?) the dramatic history, I’m looking forward to the coming posts! – TL

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