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Feb 22nd
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Home People & Lifestyle People of the West Public’s Interest in the West Remains Strong, Says Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West

ICW’s Director, Dr. William Deverell

Public’s Interest in the West Remains Strong, Says Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West

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On Sept. 28, 1542, Spanish explorer and conquistador Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed his flagship San Salvador into San Diego Bay, opening California's door to what some would call the curse of civilization.

What followed over the next 400-plus years became the facts and legends of American West history-Spanish colonial settlement of the Southwest, California's gold rush, the War with Mexico, tens of thousands of emigrants moving West, The American Civil War, Indian wars, the building of the transcontinental railroad, and the discovery of oil in California.
But now, just eight years into the 21st century, some say all of that history is no longer relevant, that interest in the Wild West is fading, and that stories of settlers, gunfighters and pioneers are no longer appealing.

No way, said Dr. William Deverell, director for the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, or ICW for short.

"There's no question about it," Deverell told OldWestNewWest.Com, "there remains a very strong interest in the West. I'd say a majority of scholars come to the Huntington Library to study the West, and it's growing. We haven't even scratched the surface of what happened."

The ICW was started in 2004 as a collaboration between the University of Southern California and the Huntington Library.

Based at the library's facilities in San Marino near Pasadena, Deverell was picked to lead the collaboration, help set the goals for the new scholarly endeavor and put several programs in place.

"I don't know how I was selected for the job," Deverell said with a smile. "I was on faculty at California Institute of Technology, and this opportunity arose."

Deverell had been an associate professor of history at CalTech at the time, and a scholar with a whole bunch of credentials. He earned his Ph.D. in history from Princeton University in 1989, and received his B.A. from Stanford University in 1983 with honors.

He has authored or co-authored several books about the West (his latest is Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past, University of California Press, 2004) and has written several essays and articles on California and Western history.

"I feel very fortunate to have been selected for this post," he said.

Deverell is sitting on top of a historian's gold mine of information about the West.

The Huntington Library (a collections-based research and educational institution established in 1919 by railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington and his wife Arabella) is world-famous.

The Huntington Library has the great majority of all the rare Western Americana books needed for research purposes, and approximately 300 manuscript collections (ranging in size from 40 to more than 200,000 items each), ranging from diaries and letters of the earliest explorers to modern business records.

Additionally, the library has one of the largest collections of material on the westward expansion, including directories, diaries, letters, and early territorial imprints, and there are more than 100 gold rush journals in manuscript, and many collections of papers relating to Western mining and transportation.

Its Mormon collection of manuscript diaries and journals is the finest outside of Utah, and there are several excellent collections for the Pacific Northwest and New Mexico; for California history, the Spanish-Mexican period is represented by a dozen substantial collections.

Deverell, 45 years old, said the main goal is to build an innovative collaboration between USC, a top research university, and the Huntington, a top research library, that initially will focus on three areas: doctoral education, K-12 outreach and ICW's working groups.

Through the ICW, faculty from USC teach graduate courses at the Huntington, integrating the library's scholarly materials into course work for students. Doctoral and postdoctoral students in USC's College of Letters, Arts & Sciences become resident scholars at the Huntington and utilize the collections in their research and teaching work.

On the school room front, Deverell said the goal is to create a program that reaches out to the Southern California's K-12 students and teachers, tapping into the Huntington archives for teaching American history.

"We expect to pilot this kind of work with a project focused directly upon the teaching of California history to fourth grade students," he said.

At the same time, the class room outreach program will also benefit doctoral students who will be polishing their skills as teaching assistants.

Finally, Deverell is establishing a series of working groups to examine California and western history in thematic settings.

"Our working groups are a way to build seminars that draw in a diverse group of academics and wrestle with some important and controversial topics," he said.

One of the programs designed for anyone interested in Western history is called the "Brown Bag" series, where maybe once a month a topic is discussed over a casual lunch and is open to the public. Kim Matsunaga, the ICW's administrative director, is responsible for much of the organizing and detail work.

A recent "Brown Bag" program, for example, focused on "The Canons of Western American Literature" and was guided by Deverell and USC history professor Bill Handley, who told the group of perhaps 50 attendees that yes indeed, such a canon does still exist.

"The public has responded very well, I'm happy to say," Deverell added. "The public is attached to USC, and the Huntington Library, and we have pulled in a lot of folks who attend our workshops very faithfully."

The ICW is really just getting off the ground, Deverell said, and is beginning to work on a variety of family collections.

"We have a lot of growth ahead of us," he said. "I told my wife that I will do this for 10 years, and I'm only into it for four years so far. This really is kind of a professional thrill for me, and I'm having a lot of fun."

The Web site for the ICW can be found at

People & Lifestyle