From Russia With Data

Student-faculty research to digitize the Russian-American experience
by Tony Moore
August 27, 2013

A sign outside Gregory Gagarin’s home displays the name of his family’s former estate in Russia. (Photo courtesy of Karl Qualls)

Twenty years from now, when Associate Professor of History Karl Qualls is getting comfortable starting his 34th year at Dickinson and Caitlin Moriarty ’13 has been an alumna for two decades, a project they started this summer might still be going.

“This could be the rest of my career,” Qualls says, without a hint of doubt. The project at hand is nothing less than creating an online repository for the entire Russian-American experience, and it began with just one person: Gregory Gagarin, a Russian prince currently living in Maryland.

In the spring of 2013, Moriarty—who has been abroad to Russia and has studied Russian—curated an archives exhibit called A Family Story: The Troussoff Collection. The exhibit detailed one family’s immigration to the United States during the Russian Revolution nearly 100 years ago. At the exhibit opening, Qualls and Moriarty were standing with Gail Troussoff Marks ’73, a descendant of the Troussoffs and the collection’s donor.

“Gail knew the Gagarins and said [Gregory Gagarin’s] daughter wanted to have someone record his oral history,” recalls Moriarty. This instantly grabbed them both, and before they knew it, Qualls and Moriarty were headed to Maryland to interview Gagarin. After hours of conversation, it became apparent that while Gagarin’s life was big, the project could be much bigger.

“It won’t be just about him,” Qualls explains. “I’m hoping this will lead to more interviews and we’ll create a Web archive of the Russian-American experience.”

The project will bring history into the modern age as a Web-based digitized project, and that aspect will function as the growth engine, eventually churning vast amounts of data.

“Making this a digitized project will be a part of the new move toward digital humanities and opens the project up to Russia,” Qualls says. “If it’s on the Web, it’s there for people in Russia to find. Once there’s a critical mass of things online, people will start coming to us instead of us looking for them.”

The process so far has been eye-opening for both Qualls and Moriarty, and the unfolding cascade of discovery is what Qualls likes best about this sort of research.

“The serendipity is the exciting thing about being a researcher,” he says. “There’s always something else out there. If you talk to the right people, have the right conversations and read the right things, there’s more out there to do than you could ever possibly finish.”

This post originally appeared on the Dickinson College website.

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