You may have noticed lately that a good many museums and libraries are commemorating the centennial of the United States’ entry into World War I in March of 1917. I’ve actually been looking forward to this because, though I’m not a war buff of any stripe, The “war to end all wars” occurred smack dab in the middle of my favorite historical era. So much changed with that eventual decision by President Wilson to enter the thorny, chaotic, and bloody conflict that had been consuming Europe for nearly three years. Lately I’ve been reading the book March 1917; One the Brink of War and Revolution by Will Englund, so fittingly published earlier this year. The book oscillates between events during that month in the U.S. and Russia, each country simultaneously approaching a jarring and pivotal historical moment. It does a good job of describing the physical environment and making the reader feel like a contemporary observer. That seems tough to do, but it’s an aspect that I’d like to add to my own writing.
At the Indiana Historical Society, our exhibits team put together a nice display of a few of our related collections items, and set up a station at which visitors can listen to oral histories of WWI veterans. Not sure how successful that is, because I can’t imagine folks standing there (there are no chairs) and listening to any one of the three available interviews for very long. In the library, our interns were assigned a case exhibit on the war as a part of their training in the reference department. I helped a little bit with gathering the materials they’d need and offered some tips on formatting text and arranging the collections items they selected, but my role was very limited. I was a little bit disappointed that I didn’t get to do this one because I know of some great items in the collection that I had wanted to feature.
However, the case displays are usually my responsibility, and we had no plan for the subject of the succeeding display. I didn’t want to completely repeat the WWI theme, replacing the interns’ selected items and text with my own, so I needed a twist.
Not coincidentally, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is also celebrating its centennial this year. The AFSC was established by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) to aid civilians impacted by the war and to help pacifist Quakers find an alternative service to being drafted into the military. I have recently reprocessed the papers of a man from Converse, Indiana (near Peru), who served with the AFSC in France immediately after the war. Chester E. Bundy kept a diary, detailing his journey to France from Indiana, and his service fixing bicycles in the French countryside. His letters home, which he wrote about once a week using the diary as a reminder of events, are also included in the collection. After a little bit of digging, I found enough additional AFSC materials to flesh out the exhibit. I’m proud to be featuring a peaceful and beneficial alternative to the war. It certainly doesn’t hurt that my fiancée is a practicing Quaker!