Where Historians Work: Q&A with Margaret Bendroth of the Congregational Library and Archives

“I’ve learned so much about how historians talk to the general public … If you tell a good story you can get people to hang in and keep listening.” ~ Dr. Margaret Bendroth, Executive Director of the Congregational Library & Archives.

Library-10.jpgFor today’s “Where Historians Work: The View from Early America,” Katy chats with Dr. Margaret Bendroth, the Executive Director of the Congregational Library & Archives in Boston, Massachusetts. They discuss the importance of story telling and having an “entrepreneurial” frame of mind, when it comes to a vibrant career in history.

JUNTO: Thank you for speaking with the blog for this series, Peggy. Tell us about the work that you do. How does it relate—or not relate—to the research you undertook in your doctoral studies?

MARGARET BENDROTH: Every day I do things I have no business doing.  I’m the executive director of a nonprofit organization, which means I watch budgets, raise money, deal with physical plant issues, and supervise people who supervise other people. You might think that the library and archive side of my job would put me in more familiar territory, but this work has become so tech-oriented and specialized that I gladly rely on a professional trained library director.

I make myself useful in other ways. It’s not unusual, of course, for a research library to have a scholar at the helm, and in our case that has made a lot of sense. When I came in 2004 the library was mostly unknown, a great collection but rarely visited by serious researchers. Creating an online catalog and a good website made a lot of difference, but those wouldn’t have been enough. Everybody likes “neat stuff” in an archive, but scholars are looking for collections that tell stories. As a historian of American religion, I was able to understand what was in our collection in ways that library professionals can’t—and aren’t expected to.  The years I spent as a researcher, working on The Last Puritans, were immensely beneficial not just for me, but for the Library and Archive. I discovered a lot of unexplored nooks and crannies, and I demonstrated for scholars what can be done in a small and focused collection like ours.

There are also plenty of other ways that my training as a historian has been directly helpful. We are trained to take disparate information and form it into a narrative, employing a minimum of jargon—that’s a practical skill for organizing meetings, sending out short and easy-to-absorb reports, and writing mission statements and grant applications.

JUNTO: What was the journey after graduate school like for you? Can you reflect on some of the choices you confronted when you made the decision to assume your post with the Congregational Library?

BENDROTH: I did not enter the job market after I got my degree. About that time my advisor became ill and passed away, which meant I was on my own career-wise. My husband and I were also ready for a family—we ended up adopting two biracial children, and since I’d been waiting for so long I definitely wasn’t interested in full-time work (and as he was employed I did not have to, at least for a while). Being an “independent scholar” is still a hard way to make a living, but I think it was more of a stigma in the 1980s than it is now. It helped that we lived in Boston. I taught loads of adjunct courses—where I probably began the habit of doing things I had no business doing—and much more important, got involved in grant-funded projects. In the 1980s and 1990s the Lilly and Pew foundation were supporting a lot of scholarship on American religion, and these were an absolute life-line for me. I eventually received an individual grant to write my first book, Fundamentalism and Gender. Some people won’t be surprised that the most important result of the grant was money to pay a babysitter.

I’m a more contemplative than competitive person, and have always been ambivalent about academia.  I did get a tenure-track job when my children were in grade school, and enjoyed the opportunity to be part of history department with students and colleagues. I enjoyed teaching. But none of it was what I thought it would crack up to be, especially living in a small Midwestern city.  I was homesick for Boston every day, and when the post at the Congregational Library came up, I was ready to consider it.

JUNTO: In our phone conversation, you used the word “entrepreneurialism” to describe how you’ve approached much of your career. Did this entrepreneurial drive emerge from your training as a historian or did it emerge from skills you acquired once on the job? How has this drive shaped the work you have done with the Congregational Library?

BENDROTH: Some people become entrepreneurs by default, because they don’t like having a boss. That’s probably me. The downside is not being able to pass responsibility to the next person. I’m the one ginning up enthusiasm for the next thing even when I may not be feeling it, and, in the early years of my work here, I had to build a lot of things from the ground up.  When my staff needed new computers, I didn’t have an IT department ready to install them—I had to find a donor, get a consultant to help me know what we needed, figure out how to buy them, and get someone to drill holes in the walls for all the wires. Not surprisingly, I worried a lot that I was becoming a mile wide and an inch deep, not a happy thing for a scholar.

The upside is that I get to inhabit a lot of different worlds.  There’s academia and the library and archive world, but way more. My circle also includes the full diversity of Boston’s Protestant churches, from Back Bay Unitarians to evangelical start-ups, as well as the local nonprofit community. I talk with Boston lawyers in glass skyscrapers, international real estate professionals, as well as accountants and auditors and insurance agents. I have gotten good at pretending I know what depreciation is. One year I won the Beacon Street football pool, beating out a dozen doormen and maintenance guys in our part of the city. I used to assume, and I think a lot of us do, that scholars were the only truly smart people—everyone else was somehow lesser and every other job a step down. Now I know that there are many different to be smart, and I respect them.

JUNTO: Higher education seems particularly fascinated—some might say burdened—with questions about the relevance of liberal arts education for today’s college students. How has this question manifested itself in the work that you do with the Congregational Library?

BENDROTH: Neither of my children have liberal arts degrees—they are both hands-on people and took up vocations instead of going to college. The fact that they’re not my biological children is one reason I was open to other paths, but having taught in a liberal arts college for a while, I’m also ambivalent about the whole academic enterprise. Having a cultivated, well-honed mind is a wonderful thing, but, as we all know, it also requires a great deal of money. That makes me uncomfortable.

At the same time, I also advocate for the importance of history every day. It’s not enough to have an archive full of great stuff—“Library 2.0” as I’ve come to understand it, means making your material accessible and compelling to all kinds of different people. How do you convince the average person on the street that the past matters? Not in some golly-gee whiz isn’t this neat kind of way, but in clear and simple language. Every historian should try their hand at it.

JUNTO: When we spoke, you stressed the importance of storytelling as a means of getting a variety of people interested in history. How does storytelling factor into the work that you do? How does it connect to your research and writing?

BENDROTH: I invite a lot of academics to give talks at the Library—we have a monthly “History Matters” series that brings in a mix of people in our downtown area. I get twitchy when a presenter starts talking about “negotiating” and “complicating” and “constructing.”  It’s not that these words are bad—they’re great at academic conferences and I love most of them dearly. But (and I’m overstating a bit) the people in our audience profoundly do not care. It’s not that they can’t understand the concepts—I’m sure most of them could—but that’s not why there are there. I think that, like most human beings, they are looking for connection. They want to hear about other human beings, other lives, stories that make someone from the past both totally foreign and utterly familiar.

We should never forget that. I’m not saying that every historian has to be David McCullough or Doris Kearns Goodwin—would that we could sell that many books! But if we can’t explain our ideas in clear simple language that the average person, they we don’t really understand them ourselves.

JUNTO: Any other thoughts on career diversity for Early Americanists?

BENDROTH: I do have a word of caution. Combining the life of the mind with lots of administrative responsibilities is not for beginners!  If you do not already have a scholarly agenda, a network of friends, and some solid achievements on your resume, the job will devour you. It is so much easier to answer an email or plan a meeting than it is to think and write. My day is full of 10 to 20 minute slots where I’m waiting for a phone call or between meetings, and I used to think I could (or should) switch over to some more academic intellectual task. It took me way too long to realize that this is ineffective and ultimately exhausting—you can only care about so many things at once. Thinking and writing requires days at a time, a place apart from your office and computer. It sometimes means going for a walk, “wasting” time staring out windows. Scholarly work also means having the support of a visionary board and regular explanations to your staff that “working at home” is not a euphemism for goofing off.

JUNTO: And one final question—what is your favorite early-music instrument and piece of music?

BENDROTH: I try to bring focus to my life through music. I play recorders—not the little plastic things you had in grade school, but beautiful wooden instruments of all sizes and tones. It probably sounds a bit nerdy but my recorder of choice is a great big renaissance C-Bass. I love the fact that a simple hollowed out piece of wood can be such a subtle and glorious means of expression. My favorite piece, hands down, “Ave Maria,” by Josquin des Prez.

Thank you for chatting with us, Peggy! Readers, we’ll be back with another installment of “Where Historians Work: The View from Early America” next week.

One response

  1. Pingback: Where Historians Work: Q&A with Margaret Bendroth of the Congregational Library and Archives | Buffalo Doug


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