The Gritty Side of Historical Research

Frank Pagliaro ’14 says his summer job feels more like a tutorial—a unique Williams class experience with one professor and two students—than work. A history and English double major with a concentration in Jewish studies, he and history professor Alexandra Garbarini are developing a digital archive of images to be used in her 20th-century European history survey class. Pagliaro will use many of these images in the final product: a multimedia component to augment Garbarini’s lectures.

Pagliaro and Garbarini work on the Prezi presentationPagliaro is using software called Prezi, which he describes as “PowerPoint on steroids” because it offers both a visual and an auditory experience. Each presentation is based on Garbarini’s research notes and a conversation about how she plans to shape the lecture portion of her classes, after which Pagliaro begins his search for images and maps that will illustrate the period being discussed.

Garbarini explains that over the last several years, students have started to ask for this type of multimedia component. “They will say, ‘This is so amazing, I would love to see a picture of it.’ And of course those pictures exist. It’s just a matter of finding them,” says Garbarini. But, as she and Pagliaro are discovering, sometimes finding the pictures isn’t the problem. Often it is difficult, or impossible, to determine the source of the images or to whom they belong.

“One of my jobs is to teach students how to think about and analyze texts,” Garbarini explains. “Images and websites are no exception.” Though students know in theory that some websites are unreliable, she says they need help learning how to analyze websites as carefully as they do historical texts—analysis that Garbarini and Pagliaro are engaged in this summer. While they won’t use images they cannot source accurately, they agree this conversation should be brought to the classroom, allowing students to see the complexity of what it means to find material on the Internet.

Garbarini is excited to share the images in her course, knowing how much they will deepen students’ understanding of the time period being studied. “In conversations with Frank, I started to articulate how important the visual is to understanding what was happening in history,” Garbarini says. As a case in point, Pagliaro explains the role color photography can have. “The common contemporary conception of Eastern Europe is one of a grey pile of rocks,” he says. “If, at the beginning of the semester, we can show the Warsaw Theatre Square in full color, or the synagogue in Minsk, and then half way through the semester students see it all completely destroyed, then their understanding becomes that much deeper.”

“This project has given me a sense of the grittier side of historical research,” Pagliaro reflects. “This is a good way for me to explore the historian’s craft. I have thought a lot about this material but also about my experience of being taught this material at Williams. I’m finding out if teaching is something I might want to pursue seriously after graduation.”

For a close-up look at of one of the presentations, visit