Why a Digital History?
Brunhilde Biebuyck, Director of Columbia Global Centers | Paris
Meredith Levin, Western European Humanities Librarian at Columbia University Libraries
In 2017, we began exploring the rich and multi-layered history of the buildings we now know as Reid Hall, situated at 4 rue de Chevreuse in the Montparnasse district of Paris. A single trajectory cannot convey the property's full story since it experienced numerous evolutions over the course of three centuries. Perhaps that is why a comprehensive overview of its history had never before been completed. The challenges we faced were manifold:
- First, we wanted to write the definitive history of 4 rue de Chevreuse in all its iterations, beginning around 1750.
- Second, the place we now know as Reid Hall reinvented itself to suit the needs of each succeeding generation. Through economic downturns, wars, political crises, and a veritable parade of administrators and benefactors, 4 rue de Chevreuse has weathered every storm and offered shelter – sometimes literal, sometimes figurative – to an extraordinary array of brilliant people, many of great importance, who lived, worked, or spent time there. All of these individuals and groups had their own stories and contributions that needed to be examined.
- Third, this property was not only part of a vibrant Parisian neighborhood, but also the hub of transatlantic communities – all of which played a significant role in its development.
- Fourth, information about each historical chapter is scattered in numerous, oft-inaccessible sources in several languages (notably French, English, Italian, and German), and in the most diverse formats: photographs, reports, correspondence, articles, news clippings, and testimonials, to name but a few.
- Last but not least, these sources are often riddled with errors and misinformation, making fact-checking a difficult yet essential aspect of our work.
Our inquiry began as we sorted through and digitized Reid Hall’s own fragmented archives of photographs, correspondence, documents, and reports. At the same time, we scoured the Barnard College, Smith College, and Columbia University archives, and consulted the Reid family papers at the Library of Congress. The pandemic prevented us from visiting other archival centers in the U.S. and Europe, but we marshaled the resources of the Columbia University Libraries, whose print collections, database subscriptions, and partnerships unlocked a world of sources we could access virtually. The digital collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, via Gallica and RetroNews, were also invaluable to our research. It goes without saying that we pushed Google to its absolute limits, also searching HathiTrust, the Internet Archive, AskArt, Google Books, and countless institutional websites.
Reading historical newspapers from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France enabled us to discover the many conferences, distinguished speakers, and holiday celebrations that were hosted at Reid Hall in each decade. Artist biographies, exhibition catalogs, and rare art journals from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries helped us document the legacy of the countless women artists who resided at 4 rue de Chevreuse and whose lives had been subsequently forgotten or obscured. Declassified military records and Red Cross correspondence allowed us to piece together the extraordinary tale of the WWI military hospitals housed on the property, and to recount the efforts of American artists to raise money and rehabilitate wounded French and American soldiers. Detailed reports, meeting minutes, and websites unveiled Reid Hall’s importance as an international center for women, and as an educational facility for French and American students.
The product of years of painstaking research and discovery, our website chronicles the various iterations of 4 rue de Chevreuse. Readers might wonder why we chose to publish this voluminous history as a website and not as a printed text. Given the scale of our efforts and the desire to reach a wide audience, we have come to realize that a living, growing website, to which more information can always be added, is the best way to showcase the mountain of stories we need to tell, and to offer the world an opportunity to share with us their own experiences or those of their forebears. Through this digital medium, we aim to reunite the dispersed archival records that document Reid Hall's past. We encounter new information on a daily basis and it is our hope that it will inspire others to share their memories and photos with us.
We hope that readers will forgive us for any misplaced commas or for the adapted MLA format we are using in our citations. The breadth of sources has astonished us and we anticipate that our lengthy bibliography will aid others who wish to delve deeper into any of Reid Hall’s remarkable chapters.
Our research and the creation of the Reid Hall website was made possible thanks to the generous support of Paul LeClerc and members of the Advisory Board of Columbia Global Centers | Paris (2018, 2019). As with any project of this magnitude, we have been helped along the way by countless scholars, colleagues, and friends. We thank the following people for their invaluable help:
- Anouk Allart
- Anne Atheling
- Rémi Coprechot, member of the Association Internationale de l'histoire du notariat, who addressed a letter to Biebuyck with information about the French Military Hospital N°53.
- Krista Faurie
- Joyce Goodman
- Lois Grjebine
- Timothy V. Johnson
- Frank Keller
- Lisa Peters
- Isabelle Runkle
- Mary Louise Soldo Schultz