Reading the Past

A summer internship transports senior Suzie Connell into the thick of the Dreyfus Affair.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

By Priya Ratneshwar

Amidst all the current hand-wringing over the potential death of print, it's hard to imagine a time when newspapers, posters and postcards could galvanize an entire country around an issue. But this past summer, senior Suzie Connell traveled to just such a period. Her time machine was a Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships Summer Humanities Internship at the Lorraine Beitler Collection of the Dreyfus Affair, housed in Penn's Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

The Dreyfus Affair was a major political and cultural crisis in late nineteenth-century France that revolved around the unjust arrest, conviction and imprisonment of Jewish artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus for treason. Connell, a Romance languages major, was able to work with one of the country's most significant collections of materials (including posters, broadsides, newspapers, magazines, prints, caricatures, books and postcards) on the incident.

As Connell carried out the responsibilities of her internship—such as making the collection's facsimile materials more accessible online—she also began an independent research project exploring how print was seminal in rousing public interest and involvement in the Dreyfus Affair. She focused on the different standpoints espoused by periodicals of the time, especially those that fostered anti-Semitism.

The past, Connell feels, is palpable in primary resources such as Dreyfus Affair postcards marked with hand-scrawled messages. "I love history, and I have this fascination with old things and printed materials," she says. "It puts you in a different world to be among all these artifacts. It makes much more real the things you might otherwise just read about."

In this video, Connell describes her work with the Beitler Collection at the 2010 College Undergraduate Research Fair.