When asked what her favorite thing is about being a historian, Claire Bond Potter, who recently joined the Schlesinger Library Council, says with some mirth, “Reading other people’s mail.”
It’s important, she adds more seriously, to understand the past, especially in an election season. “The task of history is to understand how we’ve ended up where we are and why it matters,” she says. “It’s an important civic task.”
Potter became interested in history during her undergraduate days at Yale University, where she majored in English. She went to Yale because of its English department, but increasingly, she says, “fell into the habit of taking history courses because they were so good.” She describes the faculty as “an all-star cast: Nancy Cott, Howard Lamar, John Merriman, Jonathan Spence. Just amazing teachers.”
Another Yale history professor, Ann Fabian, who now teaches at Rutgers, made a profound impact on Potter by saying she could write a much more interesting research paper if she went to Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library and explored a certain collection. “It sounds corny,” Potter says, “but the first time I held a 19th-century document in my hand, it was like my head exploded. I thought, This is what history is about—listening to the stories of the dead and figuring out what they mean.”
After graduating from Yale in 1980, Potter worked for three years in a New York advertising firm, where she wrote press releases and a newsletter, but didn’t believe in the accounts the company represented, such as Nestlé and De Beers. So she applied to graduate school in history at New York University, where she earned her doctorate in 1990.
For 20 years, Potter taught history at Wesleyan University, earning promotions from assistant to associate to full professor. During that time, she published her first book, War on Crime: Bandits, G-Men and the Politics of Mass Culture (Rutgers University Press, 1998), and a raft of articles and essays, including many on feminism, gay history, and digital issues.
Returning to New York City in 2012, Potter joined the history faculty at the New School, a progressive university located primarily in Greenwich Village and known for its experimental, student-directed curriculum. Also in 2012, she published a book she coedited with Renee Romano, Doing Recent History: On Privacy, Copyright, Video Games, Institutional Review Boards, Activist Scholarship, and History That Talks Back (University of Georgia Press, 2012).
In addition to teaching and writing, Potter works on two major projects at the New School. She chairs the school’s Digital Humanities Initiative and codirects OutHistory.org. The digital project includes a university-wide minor and a new program called Digital Across the Curriculum, in which student fellows work with faculty members and their students to create two- to three-week digital projects within courses, with the aim of spreading knowledge about how technology can help the humanities.
OutHistory started as a Wiki site by Jonathan Ned Katz—who wrote the first LGBT history, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the USA (Avon, 1978)—and is now a website that he; John D’Emilio, of the University of Illinois, Chicago; and Potter codirect. They collect and publish a wide range of information about LGBT history.
For the past six years, Potter has been conducting research at the Schlesinger for a book on radical feminism, using the papers of Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin, and Catharine MacKinnon, along with the records of the National Organization for Women. She was thrilled, she says, to be invited to join the library council. “I’ve been in love with the Schlesinger Library my entire career as a scholar,” she says. “When I was first in graduate school, women’s history was just coming together as a field. The Schlesinger Library was the place where all of us knew we would find the things we needed to make the field what it is today.”