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An Old Book, a Former Student, and Research Strategies

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This post was written by Peter DeCraene, the 2020-21 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

Books often surprise me – plot twists, different historical perspectives, or deeply drawn characters – but recently, I found a different kind of surprise in a book while researching the science of acoustics. There, on one of the blank pages at the front of Fourteen Weeks in Natural Philosophy, was a hand-written inscription that read “Arza B. Hitt High School Evanston Ill.”  I teach at Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Illinois: I needed to find more information about Arza B. Hitt!

Page from Fourteen weeks in natural philosophy by Joel Dornan Steele, 1878

I searched the historical newspapers in Chronicling America for “Arza Hitt,” and knowing that the Natural Philosophy book was published in 1878, I limited my search to 1875 to 1900. The June 1, 1881, Chicago Daily Tribune listed Arza in a short article about the commencement exercises of the Northwestern Preparatory School, in Evanston, Illinois.

A general internet search revealed an Evanston High School alumni directory listing Arza’s graduation year as 1880, and a history of Evanston indicated that Evanston High School was absorbed into the larger township high school in 1884.

To see what information I could find about Evanston High School, I returned to Chronicling America and clicked the “Advanced Search” button. I typed the phrase “Evanston High School” into the field marked “with the phrase” and limited the search to 1875-1890. Three relevant articles showed up, but did not provide much new information.

Portion of article from Chicago Daily Tribune, June 21, 1881

Changing my search criteria, I looked for the phrase “Arza B. Hitt” between 1880 and 1930, assuming he was probably close to 20 years old in 1880, and probably would not have lived much beyond 50 years after that. The five results included three notices of the death of Arza B. Hitt of Texas. I figured that was not my Arza until I saw the notice for the funeral of Mrs. M.H. Hitt who was born in Evanston and had two sons, including Arza B. Hitt of Texas.

Funeral of Mrs. M.H. Hitt. Evening Star, January 19, 1909

I now knew the name of Arza’s parents and brother, and that he moved to Texas sometime between 1881 and 1909.

Searching for these new names, I found that Arza’s parents were active in the Evanston Temperance Alliance; his mother was a friend of Frances Willard; his brother Isaac had four children; his grandmother, Mrs. Arza Brown, was elected Vice President of the Rock River Conference of the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society in 1878; and someone with the last name of Hitt was a real estate agent in Chicago in 1874.

I widened my search to the entire internet and discovered information about his marriage, move to Texas, and experience as a successful cattle rancher. There were a number of other items like Arza’s gravestone, his son’s birth certificate, and a notice of his son’s death in 1974, but also many false trails and dead ends.

It’s been a while since I’d done research like this, and it felt good to stretch those muscles again. It was certainly easier than I remember, given the Library’s vast online resources. I had to practice the advanced search techniques in Chronicling America and enjoyed my exchanges with a reference librarian. My initial curiosity about Arza B. Hitt opened avenues for further research, such as learning more about Arza’s success as a cattle rancher, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and Frances Willard.

Finally, I also noticed that Arza’s name was written on another page of the natural philosophy book, in a different script, and on a number of other pages, there are notations that had been cut off in the scanning process, so I’d like to see the actual book. I know it is located in the stacks at the Library, so it may be possible at some point for me to actually hold the textbook of an Evanston Student from 140 years ago.

Comments (3)

  1. This was one of the coolest blog posts I’ve ever read from the LOC. It’s what I do every once in awhile here at Desert Ridge HS in Mesa, AZ and it’s what I have always wanted to do full time. There is a thrill to it, right?

  2. Hi. Thank you for sharing your research adventure. We love research. Even with the twist and turns in digital research, it’s still breath taking. My husband, Haamid, and I once enjoyed visiting the rare books library at the LOC. Researching and then finding the book was always a joy. We hope you find your textbook. Thank you again for sharing such an invigorating experience.

  3. Peter, researching history is such a amazing experience. All the great things you find! Ha!

    I hope you know this is wonderful! I hope too, that you get to touch that book one day. Thank you for sharing your experience and your research. I will follow this story with continued curiosity!

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