History in the Making

Home to the Western Hemisphere’s largest maritime collection, The Mariners’ Museum Library at CNU also offers students a host of research opportunities where they can expand their classroom knowledge in a multitude of areas, from conservation to archival work. The latter is where Elena Colon-Marrero (’14) found her niche.

A history major and Spanish minor from Fredericksburg, Virginia, Colon-Marrero began working at the Library her junior year after taking a historical methods course with Dr. Amanda Herbert. She catalogued photographs and other items in the archive, and worked on the Battle of Hampton Roads Project, an effort to preserve artifacts and resources from the legendary Civil War battle between the ironclad ships USS Monitor and CSS Virginia. “The Mariners’ Museum Library really opened my eyes to the different possibilities of archiving,” says Colon-Marrero. “Every project I had I fell in love with, and I’m so grateful Dr. Herbert presented our class with different options for those pursuing a history degree. She really opened my eyes that this major is not relegated to teaching or law.”

With this experience under her belt, Colon-Marrero headed north to the New York Historical Society for an internship at the Gilder Lehrman Institute, a collection of more than 60,000 items spanning American history. She learned about the opportunity through Dr. Jonathan White of CNU’s Department of Leadership and American Studies. “Dr. White has been a great support,” she says. “Without him taking an interest in what I wanted to do I would have never heard of Gilder Lehrman.” Colon-Marrero also took White’s senior seminar, for which she and her classmates went to Washington, D.C. to learn research methods at the National Archives and Library of Congress. The trip eventually led her to write an article on Civil War photography that was accepted for publication in Military Images magazine. She’s working on another piece about the plight of freedmen of African descent in Texas during the 19th century that has grown out of her work at Gilder-Lehrman. “It is highly impressive and unusual for an undergraduate to be able to publish in a professional venue, but Elena found good topics and did a nice job in her research and writing,” says White.

Colon-Marrero’s rich and varied experience has included assisting with the production of the Institute’s teacher seminars, summer professional development programs for K-12 teachers from across the nation. She safeguards one-of-a-kind documents – letters from George Washington, color engravings from the American Revolution, even early drafts of the Constitution – as participants study them during the seminars. “As an archivist, and keeper of the document, I act as a bodyguard ready to take the document back to safety if the guests don't follow the rules,” says Colon-Marrero. “I’m in awe that they would trust me with such amazing pieces of history,” she adds. “Eventually I was able to hold both the first draft copy and a first printing of the Constitution signed by Benjamin Franklin.”

She went on to present a Civil War seminar of her own using photographs taken after the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, a subject particularly close to her. “I found the items in the collection and was instantly transported back home,” she says. “It finally made the Civil War feel real.” Colon-Marrero showed the teachers how the photos can be used to illustrate the realities of war, especially when shown alongside current pictures of the same area. “The feedback I received was so supportive and great,” she says. “I got a number of compliments and the presentation resulted in a blog post on the Gilder Lehrman website.”

As she deepens her knowledge and interest in history, Colon-Marrero looks forward to a long future in archives and records management. “I have learned so many great things while in New York City,” she says. “The environment is incredibly nurturing and flexible. They allow me to explore the city and visit numerous museums and historical sites to add to my experience.”

Once her internship at Gilder Lehrman ends, Colon-Marrero will continue to pursue her passion for preservation with graduate studies at the University of Michigan.