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Algaier gives students ‘powerful’ research experience at Harvard

Barry McNamara
Students Melissa Hernandez (left) and Diana Rubi accompanied Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies Ermine Algaier to Harvard University to help him with his research on William James's personal library.
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MONMOUTH, Ill. – A pair of Monmouth College students recently joined a Monmouth faculty member on a special research project that took them to the birthplace of American higher education.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies Ermine Algaier, who is reconstructing the personal library of William James, received a grant from the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy that allowed two Monmouth students to accompany him on a research trip to Harvard University.

One of the most influential U.S. philosophers, James has been called “the father of American psychology.” Nearly a century ago, 1,713 volumes from James’s personal library were donated to Harvard – the first U.S. college, and also James’s alma mater and his professional home as a member of its faculty for more than 30 years.

Shortly after Monmouth’s fall semester ended in December, Algaier took students Melissa Hernandez ’18 of Chicago and Diana Rubi ’18 of Peoria, Ill., to Cambridge, Mass., where the students assisted him on research at Houghton Library, Harvard’s primary repository for rare books and manuscripts.

“The work Melissa and Diana helped with could’ve taken me several months, but we pulled it off in five days,” said Algaier. “Their work was top-notch. They really loved it, and I hope I can continue doing something like this with interested students.”

The Harvard collection is important to James scholars not only because it is the largest collection of his personal library, but also because of what James wrote in the books as he studied them.

“He marked up virtually every page of selective texts by such famous thinkers as Immanuel Kant and Henri Bergson,” said Algaier, who joined Monmouth’s faculty last fall.

Hernandez said it was “a powerful and different experience” to view firsthand James’s marginalia and notes he made in books from his collection.

“As a result, I strongly plan to implement primary research in my future graduate career,” she said.

Rubi said the experience also taught her a lot about the mechanics of conducting research.

“While we were looking through library entries to try to find books from James’s collection, I was learning the importance of detail and time management,” she said. “I know that I will use the tactics and organization that we learned to move forward in my own research.”

The students said that the opportunity to conduct primary source research was tremendous in itself, but they said that the location of the research made the experience even more special.

“I never would have thought that as a first-generation student of color, I would ever actually see Harvard University in real life,” said Hernandez.

Algaier’s work with James’s collection goes back about three years. It has led to Algaier’s manuscript, Reconstructing the Personal Library of William James: Markings and Marginalia from the Harvard Library Collection, which is under contract with the American Philosophy Series by Rowman & Littlefield, a subdivision of Lexington Books.

“There’s no hope to ever reconstruct his library in totality, but I’m doing my damnedest to record as much of it as possible,” said Algaier.

In addition to the main donation from James’s library, which occurred on April 4, 1923 – 13 years after the scholar’s death – Algaier said that James donated 138 other times, totaling close to 900 additional volumes.

“I’m trying to track those down, as well,” he said. “No one’s systematically cataloged any of it.”

Algaier said the rest of James’ collection is scattered, with volumes “popping up in places like India and Japan.”

Algaier is managing editor of the journal William James Studies and former secretary of the William James Society. He’s published articles in Environmental Ethics, The Pluralist and William James Studies and has been awarded two Young Scholar Prizes for his writings on James.

“I have always been inspired by the range and originality of James’s thought in the fields of philosophy, psychology and religion,” said Algaier. “As I reconstruct his personal library, I am continually reminded of his deep commitment to inclusivity: not only his openness to genuinely consider ways of thinking that run against the grain, but also his willingness to stand and fight for the epistemic underdog.”

The James library project seems like a daunting task, but it hasn’t deterred Algaier from similar work. He is also busy reconstructing the library of one of James’s Harvard colleagues, Josiah Royce.