Jennifer Putzi named W&M Libraries Faculty Scholar

By Tami Back, W&M Libraries

Jennifer Putzi
Jennifer Putzi has been selected as W&M Libraries next Faculty Scholar. Photo by Stephen Salpukas

Jennifer Putzi, professor of English and Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies at William & Mary, has been named the next William & Mary Libraries Faculty Scholar.

Putzi has taught in the English department at W&M for 22 years. Her area of specialization is American literature to 1900, women writers and 19th-century American poetry. 

“This opportunity is a gift,” said Putzi. “Having dedicated time to focus on my research and to work alongside librarians and archivists on a digital humanities project really excites me.”

Putzi will serve as the Libraries’ faculty scholar for three years, beginning in spring 2024. As faculty scholar, she will partner with library colleagues on several initiatives. Principal among them is the creation of a digital repository of 19th-century African American women’s diaries, which will supplement a book she is writing on the topic.

“We are grateful for the support of alumni and friends who have allowed us to support Jenny Putzi’s scholarship,” said Carrie Cooper, dean of university libraries. “We are eager to lift up the voices and lives of women whose words have been largely hidden from public view.”

For the past year and a half, Putzi has been traveling to archives across the country to examine African American women’s diaries. Most of these diaries have been stored safely away in archives, out of the spotlight, with Putzi being the first scholar to study them. 

“These are diaries that have never been in print before, they’ve never been edited, and I’m the first person to transcribe them,” Putzi said. “I think it’s really important that this work gets out there, so that other scholars can use it. I’m going to write a book about it, but I can’t say everything there is to say about these individual diaries, so an idea began germinating in my mind about making these diaries accessible to researchers around the world.”

The purpose of the project is to illuminate the value of studying women’s diaries, both in terms of the historical record and the role that materiality plays in relation to content.

“At a basic level I want to demonstrate that diaries are worthy of study, but I’m also really interested in thinking about the materiality of diaries and its conjunction with content,” she said. “When diaries are written about, it’s as if they’re all content and historical source material. But what about the physical aspects of the diaries themselves? I’m arguing that those things do matter, and they affect what people write about and how they write it.”

While the book will focus on certain aspects of Black women’s diaries, the digital project will present the diaries in full, making them openly and freely accessible to researchers around the globe.

“This digital project will allow access to these manuscripts to those who can’t travel to the archives,” said Putzi.

The expansion of the book to an open access resource allows the information to reach a broader audience than an academic text, providing valuable insight for learners and researchers of all ages and circumstances. 

Putzi has been fascinated with diaries since she was a teen. This fascination has followed her throughout her career, from a project she worked on as an undergraduate to the classes she now teaches.

“I’ve kept a diary since I was 13,” she said. “Keeping a diary is an everyday engagement for people. Sometimes the things they write are very practical, like recording the weather, and other times they are very creative, like writing poetry. I love how diaries capture the everyday parts of life.”

During the pandemic, she began teaching a course on 19th-century African American women’s diaries. The capstone project for the class was to transcribe a diary written by Mary Virginia Montgomery in 1872.

“We would have workshops in class where students could transcribe pages of the diary and they could work together because in the beginning very few of them could even make out the handwriting,” said Putzi. “It was interesting to see how invested students got in the process. They felt a sense of ownership and stewardship because they became experts on the diary.”

Her research into Black women’s diaries has already yielded many interesting discoveries. One particular diary stands out in her mind: the 1868 diary of Francis Rollin, which is housed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Rollin was an African American woman born in Charleston, South Carolina, who taught in the freedmen schools after the war. In 1868, Rollin was in Boston writing a biography of the African American intellectual, activist, and Union major Martin Delany.

“I ended up finding Rollin’s great-granddaughter and learned that the diary had belonged to her before she donated it to the Smithsonian, so I was able to talk to her about her great-grandmother. It was a truly meaningful experience to collaborate with her on the edition of Rollin’s diary that will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2025.”

Putzi hopes that her project will encourage others to view diaries as an important part of the historical record, and possibly begin keeping a diary of their own.

“I think about all of the people who keep diaries and what those are going to mean for the future. The ones people are writing today, someone may study those 100 years from now,” she said.