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Using the Kislak Collection to Study the Early Americas

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This week the Kluge Center extended the application deadline for Kislak Fellowships until October 31. These unique fellowships support research related to the discovery, contact, and colonial periods, particularly (but not exclusively) in Florida, the Caribbean, and Mesoamerica using The Jay I. Kislak Collection.

The Kislak Collection is an extraordinary trove of materials. It includes:

  • A letter by priest Bartolomé de Las Casas, written in 1528. Las Casas traveled between Spain and the Americas decrying the treatment of indigenous populations by Spanish conquistadors. His letter is addressed to the Emperor Charles V.
  • Aztec land records. Very few of these survive, as the Aztec archives were burned by the Spanish. But the Aztecs were highly literate with a pictorial script and phonetic writing. Maps such as this from the 1600s were brought by Aztecs to the Spanish in an attempt to substantiate their claims to their land.

Plus many more books, maps, documents and objects: 4,000+ in total.

What research can be done using the Kislak Collection? Over the years a number of scholars have devised innovative projects.

Patricia O’Brien, a historian from Australia, was a 2011 Kislak Fellow. She used the Kislak Collection to examine the history of English piracy in the Pacific, and the encounters between buccaneers and indigenous populations.

Cameron Strang, a historian at University of Texas at Austin, was a 2010 Kislak Fellow. He used the Kislak Collection to help explain the violence of the Second Seminole War, including a deeper understanding of the scalping and decapitation by both White settlers and native tribes.

Benjamin Reed was a Kislak Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In addition to using the Kislak Collection, he discovered a previously unknown document from Mexico in the 1680s within the Library’s manuscripts collection.

And Surekha Davies, a Kislak Fellow in 2014, used the Kislak Collection as well as the Library’s map collections to examine the significance of monsters on maps of the New World.

Kislak Fellows are not the only scholars who find innovative ways to use the Kislak Collection. Historian and astronomer Steven Dick held the NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology in 2014. His project explored the potential ramifications of discovering of life beyond Earth, including what might occur if we encounter another intelligent civilization. As he states on our blog:

“I’ve used the analogy of culture contacts, wonderfully documented in the Kislak Collection of the Cultures and History of the Americas here at the Library of Congress, to help in this regard. It’s not a direct analogy, of course, but there are lots of interesting insights uncovered when you examine what Europeans thought the Native Americans would be like, and vice versa. There are subtle lessons: problems in communication, how different brains or minds perceive experiences based on strongly-held cultural beliefs and norms… I believe we’re much too sanguine about our ability to communicate with any potential intelligent life beyond Earth.”

The Library of Congress is full of incredible collections that contain millions of objects. The Kislak Collection is one of many resources for researchers and scholars. Due to the rarity of its items, diversity of its materials, and the insights it offers into past civilizations, it is one of our more remarkable treasures. The Library is deeply grateful to Jay I. Kislak and the Kislak Foundation for its gift and generous support. We look forward to seeing how future scholars make use of this tremendous resource.

The next round of Kislak Fellowship applications are due October 31, 2016. To apply, visit our website.

You can see objects from the Kislak Collection in this online exhibit.

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