There and Back Again – Dr. Sebastian Bondzio (re)joins the NGHM-Team and shares impressions of his life and work in Washington, DC

In March 2020, the world had only started to become aware of the thing that has now shaped our lives for roughly the past two years. Cases were not limited to Asia anymore, spread like wildfire, and announced what we now know as the first European wave of Covid-19. Efforts to contain the virus by closing of certain towns and regions were failing. Looking down on China or Italy clearly did not do any good. We were still figuring out how the virus’s transmission worked and in the meantime, stores ran out of toilet paper, flour, and disinfectant. Stock prices plummeted. Governments started to close down their borders – even inside the European Union. The hope that this would be over quickly was still present, but slowly yielded to a ubiquitous feeling of dread, that most people in Western Europe had never experienced before. Uncertainty, which had already been a constant companion of the younger generations, reached a new level and has hardly improved since. At least switching to digital formats kept us busy, and now it was ok to spend even more time in front of our screens.

On March 17th, I had just returned from what was planned to be a nice winter sports holiday with some good friends in the Austrian Alps. But because there were some cases in St. Anton, we had left the village as fast as possible and, precautiously, had gone into a 14-day quarantine. That day, I received an e-mail from the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC (GHI) in which I was offered the Gerda Henkel Postdoctoral Fellowship for Digital History at the GHI and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA (CHNM) for which I had applied a couple of months earlier. The fellowship provides a unique opportunity for the recipient to develop an innovative research project in collaboration with the GHI and the CHNM and was supposed to start on August 24th 2020. Seeing this as an appreciation and validation of my ongoing efforts in doing digital historical research and at the same time a chance for exchange and learning even more, I, of course, immediately accepted the offer.

Pretty soon, though, it became clear that lockdowns and the growing understanding that the virus had led to a global pandemic would make an in-person start of the fellowship in DC in 2020 impossible. Vaccines that were promised and a general sense of optimism made us choose January 2021 as the starting date. At the end of January, when George Mason University (GMU) was starting its new semester, I was supposed to be in DC. Getting a Visa proved to be quite a challenge. Help from GMU was perfect, but ever-changing restrictions and regulations meant that planning required a high level of flexibility in what should have been only a routine process. But, the flight was pleasant and everybody on board was aware of their shared responsibility.

Lufthansa Plane from Frankfurt am Main to Washington, DC, Dulles International Airport

Arriving in Washington, DC on January 24th then was quite a process. Coming from the sometimes somewhat drowsy city of Osnabrück to the Capitol of the United States that was still under shock from the terrorist insurrection on Capitol Hill only a few weeks prior and the inauguration of President Joe Biden two days ago, I felt like I had entered a post-apocalyptic movie set. Police and heavily armed National Guard were passing by constantly on what were otherwise mostly empty streets. To live close to a metro line that would be basically equally distant from the GHI and the CHNM, I had moved into an apartment in Rosslyn, on the Virginia side of the DMV area. It was only later that I learned that behind the Iwo Jima Memorial and the Arlington National Cemetery, which basically were my direct neighbors, there was the Fort Myer Military Base, the National Guard’s headquarters, and – two miles down the road – the Pentagon. Pretty soon, I didn’t even notice the presence of military anymore.

The closest I was able to get to the US Capitol in February 2021

Pandemic Rosslyn, with its high rising buildings, that house venture capital businesses next to global companies like Deloitte or Nestlé, seemed like one of those early surreal paintings of De Chirico. Buildings deprived of their natural inhabitants. A world made by humans, for humans, but without them. A compact space designed to be highly efficient, but that didn’t do anything at that moment. Wandering and exploring those abandoned valleys made from concrete and glass I became aware that my life now would be quite a different one. It took me some time to develop a general orientation. But with pretty Georgetown on the other side of the Potomac and Downtown DC, only a few metro stops away, I felt confident that the upcoming year would be no boring one.

The skyline of Rosslyn, VA. the orange one on the left was my apartment building. (Picture taken from Roosevelt Island)

Already back in Germany, Jana Keck, the GHI’s Research Fellow for Digital History, and I had started establishing e-mail correspondence and exchanged our ideas of what we both thought of as being subjects of and directions for digital history. Coming from two quite different parts of the spectrum of digital history, from day one, this proved to be very productive and over time made us become good friends. Being in the USA and tested negative for the coronavirus, we met up for coffee and bagels and Jana asked me to join the GHI’s DH-working group and also invited me to attend the meetings of the DH group of the Max Weber Foundation. In both, ongoing international research was presented and discussed. Switching to a digital format had allowed for these formats that connected the global expertise in digital history.

Three other researchers and I formed the GHI’s first cohort of Visiting Fellows for 2021. Spread out through the city and as yet unvaccinated, for the first couple of months, we met online for our bi-weekly ‘Happy Hours’ in which Axel Jansen, GHI’s deputy director, and Bryan Hart, GHI’s fellowship officer, provided us with essential insights into the GHI’s organizational structures and its rich resources, we were now able to use for our own studies. After all of us were able to get our two initial doses of the vaccine, we switched to in-person meetings and explored some of the bars and beer gardens, DC has to offer.

Other Research Fellows I either met at cozy dinner and frequent birthday parties, for a cup of coffee, or during the GHI’s renowned Research Seminar, in which internal research projects were discussed, and external researchers were invited to share their work. The spectrum of historical topics, methodological approaches and theoretical understandings that got a chance to speak was stimulating and inspired me to reflect my own. Having worked with large sets of historical data myself and being experienced in working with GIS, proved to be a welcome skill set at the GHI. Discussing data structures with researchers who themselves were only starting to tap into digital workflows and consulting with them on their plans for digitizing their own projects, I particularly enjoyed.

During the early months of the Fellowship, at the CHNM, Lincoln Mullen, the director for computational history, was the one who connected me to people and the resources that I needed to do my own research. Through him, I got access to the Center’s powerful server infrastructure, on which I could run my database that contained data on about 11.2 million people from Europe who immigrated to the United States between 1820 and 1921. He also invited me to join the Center’s data group, in which PhD candidates, postdocs, and tenured staff presented their projects and discussed ways of working with smaller and larger sets of historical data. Mills Kelly, the CHNM director, invited me to attend the Center’s weekly all-staff meetings that were very inclusive and pretty soon made me feel like being part of the team. Before summer, this, of course, was all still being done virtually.

The RRCHNM sign at GMU’s Research Hall

After summer, CHNM returned to an in-person operation, which finally allowed me to experience this very interesting working environment firsthand. Digital historians of all varieties share their workspace with technical developers to further the cause that had inspired Roy Rosenzweig to found the center in the first place. Democratizing history by using the latest media and technical resources is done there in a collaborative way that ­– in my experience – is otherwise quite unusual for historians.

Commuting to GMU’s Fairfax campus, however, proved to be more of a hurdle than I had imagined it to be. Forty-five minutes by metro were followed by a bus ride that took about the same amount of time. Had I owned a car, the trip could have been done in thirty to forty minutes. It was only later that I learned that GMU’s campus position was deliberately chosen this way. In the late 1940ies, it was clear to Virginians in Richmond that Northern Virginia needed a university. But they had no intention of providing one for those people in DC who were considered too liberal in the old capital of the South. Divisions that only existed in my abstract knowledge of US history before, suddenly, had a real impact on my everyday life. Luckily, the colleagues at the Center and Catie McGeever, a Ph.D. researcher at GMU, in particular, were very welcoming and more than made up for the inconvenience of traveling there. During our lunch- and coffee breaks, Catie was very open to discussing all the things that struck the German part of me as different or even strange in this country that I was so eager to understand.  

Together with a growing group of friends I met at the local climbing gym, this was the backdrop against which I did my research in 2021. In my application for the Gerda Henkel Fellowship for Digital History, I had outlined a vision for a research project, I wanted to develop to the point where I was able to write a proposal for third-party funding. The so-called Castle Garden dataset was supposed to stand at the heart of that project. As I mentioned above, this dataset contains about 11.2 million US immigrants from 19th century Europe. It is the result of an administrative process of knowledge production that started after the Steerage Act of 1819.  My initial idea was to select all those 4.2 million individuals whose country of birth had been written down as being ‘Germany’ – whatever that meant before 1871 – and analyze those datasets to get a deeper understanding of the process of German immigration to the United States during the 19th century. Because I had neither created the dataset myself nor was I involved in the digitization of the shipping/passenger lists, in a second step, I planned to do research on the history of this repository of knowledge as well. This way, the character and idiosyncrasies of the dataset that had emerged in a long and contingent process of knowledge production would become visible and could be taken into account when interpreting the findings. For both steps, migration research and research on the history of knowledge, digital analysis of the dataset would be the starting point for deeper, more qualitative studies. The parts in this hybrid project design thus would be linked by a digitally based mixed methodology.

The topic of German immigration to the United States – as you can imagine – has been studied quite thoroughly. But not a lot of new research has happened during the last 20 years. Analyzing the literature to gain a proper overview of the state of research, however, made one thing very clear. Historical narrations about the process, for the most part, fell into one of two categories. On the one hand, a lot of stories have been written about certain individuals or groups, whose actions have been interpreted as valuable contributions to US-American society or culture. On the other hand, there were millions of German immigrants who embarked on the transatlantic journey and who did not get the same attention. They were handled by late 20th-century historiography as a collective subject and were only represented in aggregated numbers. This way, these ‘masses’ stayed faceless and were described with aquatic metaphors like ‘waves’ ‘floods’ or ‘streams’ that themselves were taken directly from the anti-immigration discourse of the late 19th and early 20th-century. This, of course, only reproduced the immigrants’ marginalization. Efforts to compensate for these deficits remained limited and, as a consequence, our detailed understanding of the process itself stayed quite vague.

Reading additional papers and books on immigration from other European countries, these two modes appeared to be the main ways of storytelling. Moreover, it struck me that proper research on the process of European immigration to the United States during the 19th-century simply did not exist. The few studies that did exist, remained on the level of comparing the statistically produced, aggregated numbers of nation-states. For phenomena like these, Migration research uses the term ‘methodological nationalism’ and calls to overcome it.

At this point in time – we are speaking late August, early September (a lot of talks and papers were supposed to happen in 2020, but then didn’t and needed to be done in 2021 as well) – there was no way that I could develop a project that exclusively focused on German immigration to the United States anymore. Most of the potential of the dataset would have been lost and a chance for historical migration research would have been missed. So I set out to change the project design accordingly. Now, the new goal is to work with all 11.2 million datasets that constitute the Castle Garden dataset and to model and analyze the process of European Migration over a hundred years based on it. The dataset allows leaving national container spaces behind and to identify phenomena, structures, and dynamics of the process that are local, regional, transregional, national, or even transnational. Any spatial and temporal zoom level into the process becomes possible.

At the same time, the project aims at using the Castle Garden data to deal with the complex emergence of the sources. With the Steerage Act of 1819, the US government started its systematic production of knowledge about immigrants in the so-called ‘shipping lists’. Initially, this had two reasons. First, the number of immigrants had skyrocketed at the beginning of the 19th-century. As a result, ships were overbooked and overcrowded. To make things even worse, captains tried to maximize their profit and often did not carry enough rations to feed their passengers. To avoid starvation on board, regulating supplies and controlling the number of passengers thus became a concern. Second, the US government wanted to gain an overview of the number of people that arrived in the country. To that end, the ‘shipping lists’ were to be collected by the port authorities and send to the Secretary of State, who had to summarize them and report the numbers to the US congress. Up until 1921, when the so-called Emergency Quota Act started a new period of European immigration, the Steerage Act was augmented and replaced several times.

These facts are all known pretty well by historiography. What is still to be researched, though, are the discourses and negotiations that surrounded the augmentation and replacements of the Steerage Act. Especially when it comes to the question of how they influenced the knowledge that was produced in the shipping lists. With the Carriage of Passengers Act of 1855 e.g., new categories were introduced into the knowledge and although most of those categories of knowledge might seem natural to us today, it was actually the first time they were used in the process of producing data on immigration. Researching the ways, these categories found their way into the knowledge about the immigrants is something that is highly relevant to historical migration research and the history of knowledge. In this specific case, looking at the history of US censuses, of course, makes sense. But furthermore, I wonder how the learning processes actually looked like and if we can find other patterns or influences.

Among other things, analyzing the Castle Garden dataset by applying exploratory methods can help us identify, at what point in time new categories and attributes were introduced into this process of knowledge production and to identify periods, in which relevant discourses and decisions are to be expected.

These three pillars, a history of European migration to the United States, a history of knowledge of the act of monitoring this process, and a digital operationalization that expands traditional historical workflows by integrating exploratory methodologies, form the basis of a hybrid and inclusive project design. A lot of my work during the fellowship was conceptual and reflexive. The Gerda Henkel Fellowship for Digital History, luckily, provides space for exactly these kinds of work. Tangible results, for the most part, were produced in other projects, where data was already preprocessed for evaluation. (Here you can find a list of my most recent publications) Work for the project proposal itself was mostly preparatory. With the support of Emma Strano, an undergrad student at GMU, I worked through tens of thousands of data fragments that are now corrected and normalized. Still, this was only the beginning of the data preprocessing, and it takes a lot more work to prepare the entire dataset for analysis. At least, now, I have a good estimate of the effort that is needed to reach this goal. Second, I was able to go through some of the sources of the Bureau of Immigration, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and its predecessors. But then again, this was just the start. These two holdings contain more relevant sources and the archives of other relevant institutions I haven’t even touched.

Presenting the results of my year of work at the CHNM’s all-staff meeting, December 6th, 2021.

Nonetheless, if you were to ask me, it was quite a productive year. The pandemic of course made arriving and doing my work harder, but being a digital historian it luckily did not need to come to a halt. Most of what I wanted to achieve in my time as the Gerda Henkel Fellow for Digital History, I did – and a lot more. Workwise and otherwise. Right from the start, it was an exciting time in a fascinating country and I still marvel at all the impressions that, yet unordered, are buzzing around in my head. Let’s see, how the narratives will form.

Here, back in Germany, people often ask me if I would move over there indefinitely. I sometimes wonder what motivates them to ask that question. However, the honest answer is, that I don’t know about that. The gray winter clouds hanging low above the city of Osnabrück surely do not help. The bright blue sky and the warming sun in DC are still very present in my memory. But, it is way too early to pass judgment. What I can report is that a new feeling has emerged. A strange pull and a strive for more. I am excited to find out where it will lead me.

For now, it is good to be home again. Every adventure has to end at some point so that new ones can begin. At Osnabrück University, I returned to my former positions as the researcher in the DFG funded Project ‘Überwachung. Macht. Ordnung’ and senior researcher in the working group ‘Data Driven History’. What comes next, is still unknown. I will keep you posted.


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