The Newberry Library’s Undergraduate Seminar: My Experience

I often find myself somewhat haphazardly filling out applications for things sent to me through email. Any Honors student is well aware of just how many of these emails are sent; the network of opportunities is part of the Honors Program’s draw, after all. Granted, my impetus is usually an “Eh, why not?” when it comes to applying for said opportunities, but it is an approach that has yet to fail me.

So when I saw an email Fall Quarter about an opportunity for Honors students to study at the Newberry Library for class credit, I filled out the application immediately. I like libraries and my major is dependent on research and historical analysis so it seemed like the program would be a good fit. Once again I asked myself the reliable “Eh, why not?”, wrote my cover letter, and submitted my application without a second thought. Resume building in action.

As I would learn later, the Newberry Library hosts an undergraduate research seminar every year during DePaul’s Winter and Spring quarters. The seminar brings students from DePaul, Loyola, Roosevelt, and UIC to learn about an annual topic relating to Chicago’s history and craft their own research thesis paper. (P.S: To myself and to any other prospective applicants–you will have to write a 20 page research paper by the end of the seminar!) Students have the opportunity to speak with Newberry staff and get a glimpse into the operations of an archive and research library.

The Newberry Library is an internationally renowned public research library located in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood. It houses documents that date back to Renaissance Europe!

Right off the bat, a 20 page research essay seems intimidating–and make no mistake, it is a lot of work–but you have a lot of time to think it out and work on it. Because this is a cross-university class, it takes an entire semester. The first half, roughly lining up with DePaul’s Winter Quarter, is focused on teaching you about Chicago’s history through primary and secondary documents (we read real recorded speeches from Eugene Debs as well as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, for example). The second half of the class is dedicated to independent research and actually tackling the beast that is the essay. Though it’s called independent research, there’s a wide swath of people at the Newberry dedicated to helping you find resources and giving you research advice, especially since they know you’re a student who is new to the archives. Here’s a little pro-tip by the way: always talk to a librarian. Not only are they lovely people, but they are guaranteed to help you out on any project you’re working on.

Since the 2022 seminar was specifically about Chicago’s history of migration, I decided to write my research paper on Italian immigration and their participation in the Leftist movements of the early 20th century. Coming from an Italian family myself, I wanted to honor the story of immigration and activism that came from Italy. The Newberry’s archive had plenty of cool stuff: a hand-written letter from Bartolomeo Vanzetti to Eugene Debs, Italian-language IWW pamphlets, and immigration political cartoons. They even have an entire online archive of foreign-language newspapers from Chicago’s immigrant communities translated to English, a resource I utilized for my paper quite a lot. I am interested in archive work, so I certainly appreciated the opportunity to navigate the Newberry’s methods of organization and conservation. Thanks to their helpful staff and the professors leading the seminar, I was able to produce a final paper that I was proud of and can happily add to my writing portfolio.

Immigrants played a significant role in labor movements like the IWW. I explored these contributions in my NLUS research paper.

The NLUS Seminar is certainly a commitment. I wasn’t aware of how much work goes into an intensive research paper before applying, but I definitely felt it firsthand in the second half of the class. If you’re a history major or if research is up your alley then I would definitely recommend this class. If research is NOT your thing, maybe steer clear. I was also surprised by how much fun was infused into the class. I got to meet a wide range of people from different schools and years and majors and I left the experience with some new friends. By far the best part of the class was getting to meet Stephen Wade, a Newberry fellow who studies and performs folk music (and played the banjo in Spongebob, no big deal). I feel there’s not a lot of publicization about the NLUS seminar, but it’s definitely something worth checking out, especially for Honors students with a passion for history. Keep an eye out next Fall for application information if you’re interested! And, as always, if you have any questions about the program then feel free to reach out to me!

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