Interview with Michael Skaggs

Michael SkaggsMichael Skaggs is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Notre Dame. He studies religion in the American Midwest, and is particularly interested in how interfaith organizations addressed social problems.

What is your current area of research?

Right now, I’m working on a dissertation chapter on Catholic racial activism in 1960s Cincinnati. Partly those men and women did so because they got involved in the contemporary civil rights movement, but the Second Vatican Council’s call for the laity to be active in society had something to do with it, too. But I think the blend of those two motivations is more complicated than it seems at first.

More generally, my dissertation asks how Catholics in one midwestern place – Cincinnati, Ohio – responded to the Second Vatican Council, and how the presence of a substantial Jewish community inflected that response. This presents us with a fascinating opportunity to understand the real richness of American Catholicism, which I think we miss out on if we overlook places like Cincinnati, which usually don’t seem to be all that important to us.

Graduate students in search of dissertation topics are well-positioned to draw attention to topics and places long untouched by scholars! And while there are many scholars across the career timeline ready to embrace digitization, I think the younger generation has a natural ability to work with these resources – maybe even an impatience to do things “the old way.” This is a transitional moment in academia, though, so there’s a real need for students and future scholars to straddle the line between technologies old and new.

How do you use CRRA’s resources for your research?

I first came to know about CRRA just after I had finished a research project on The Criterion, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’s official newspaper. I did it the new-old-fashioned way: cranking through what felt like miles of microfilm. Now I work with CRRA’s newspaper digitization project and have been excited at the conversations surrounding getting these sources into a format that we can use quickly and easily.

CRRA has been particularly useful in considering how I might shape my research projects to benefit from digitization in the future. Since most of my sources are not yet digitized, it’s been wonderful to look ahead and consider what might reasonably be digitized in the future and the scholarly community that will arise around those sources. It’s exciting to think about being part of a conversation that more and more people enter as sources open up to easy access from afar.

What is the most exciting / surprising source you’ve been able to get access to for your research?

I have to point to the old-school method of research for this one, too, because Cincinnati doesn’t get the attention it really ought to – a lot of Catholic scholarship has been focused to this point on “more important” places in the American Church. So the biggest and most impressive collections that CRRA catalogs come from elsewhere – an imbalance that CRRA is sure to fix in coming years and as more and more diocesan archives get involved. But I would say the most exciting – or one of the most exciting sources – has been The American Israelite, which was published by and for American Reform Jews. It’s fully digitized but only accessible in certain locations – a prime opportunity for CRRA, since the Israelite reported on things Catholic quite often!

The American Israelite points up the potential of partnerships between the academy and religious institutions. While no small project, that one newspaper presented a relatively straightforward digitization task. And many organizations would only be too happy to let CRRA digitize their materials if the funding is available and it can be done in a reasonable amount of time. Furthermore, CRRA has utilized an excellent strategy of asking scholars themselves what they need access to, as this provides a clear (if not concise) idea of sources that might be targeted for digitization. Most scholars with particular research projects can identify exactly which collections it would be useful to digitize, which makes the process manageable, even if not all that easy. From there, related collections can be identified for future scholars who aren’t working with them just yet, or individual archives can propose collections that really ought to be made digital, and so on. It pretty plainly represents the future and I’m happy to know CRRA is working hard to get ahead of the game.

What do you wish you could have access to but is currently unavailable?

I sound like a broken record whenever I’m asked this in CRRA conversations: fully digitized diocesan newspapers from across the United States. I think that would open up research fields historians have not even begun to consider, especially since having all of that information readily available would really help us uncover the complexity of American Catholicism from place to place. Many dioceses have the entire run of their newspaper preserved, in some cases very well so. A program just for diocesan archives – and especially their newspapers – would be a fantastic way to bring these sources into the mainstream of academic research, especially those smaller or “less important” dioceses that historians haven’t thought of yet.

I also think that archival sources on parish histories are a goldmine yet to be tapped by most scholars. The problem here is accessibility, or even knowing where they are kept: more than once I have run into a parish saying their materials are held at the diocesan archives, while the diocesan archivist says the materials are at the parish! And in many cases people just haven’t saved much. But if we really want to know about American Catholicism, we desperately need access to the sources pertinent to the vast majority of American Catholics: the laity, who connect to the Church first at the parish level. These materials don’t need to be all that in-depth to provide something useful, either – I’d be perfectly happy with a solid set of parish bulletins over a given period of time, for example, for what it would tell us about parish life. Again, this is where CRRA is in a great place to help, through utilizing scholars’ needs and wants to identify, catalog, and digitize collections.