Alongside her love of travel, history, and microfilm, humanities librarian Erin Hvizdak holds a special place in her heart – and her research – for preserving stories of everyday women that are often lost in archives.
“There’s so much we don’t know about the history of women because the sources haven’t been preserved, they haven’t been highlighted, they haven’t been made accessible,” Hvizdak said. “While this has greatly improved in recent decades, we still have a long way to go.”
This summer, she will pursue her research on these women in Victoria, British Columbia, after recently receiving a Digital Humanities Summer Institute scholarship.
The award covers the cost of a workshop in June, where Hvizdak will learn about digital storytelling and how to build a digital community exhibit for her research. She also plans to eat “so many oysters.”
“It was kind of an honor. It makes me feel like I’m on the right track,” she said. “I feel like a real historian.”
Hvizdak’s research follows two women from the Atlantic world in the 19th century. Although Solitude had only one paragraph to her name in 1860, she became a local legend in French Guadeloupe, Hvizdak said. In 1802, she led a group of enslaved people in a revolt against Napoleon’s attempt to reinstate slavery on the island.
Hvizdak is also studying Marie Laveau, a Voodoo priestess from New Orleans. Despite little archival evidence of her past, Laveau is a prominent figure in local communities, as well as being featured on a season of “American Horror Story,” in songs, and in bars, Hvizdak said.
Prior to her trip to Victoria, Hvizdak will search New Orleans archives for traces of Laveau, trying to understand why and how people created her various portrayals. However, Hvizdak said she will still make time for oysters.
“I just think it’s important to get the stories out there and pull them all together in one space so that people can use them as a learning tool. They can see how women are represented throughout time and what impact this continues to have on the status of women,” she said.
Hvizdak’s research of women’s stories extends to her work with students, faculty, and the public at WSU Libraries as well, she said.
This semester, Hvizdak helped Anne Schobelock, a second-year master’s student in the history department, search for feminist periodicals from Dallas and Houston, Texas, in the 1970s. Despite the texts being scattered and difficult to find – they were only published for five years at a time – Hvizdak reached out to Northwestern University and Eastern Washington University on Schobelock’s behalf.
“As graduate students in history, we’re being trained to write and read and interpret documents, but we haven’t been trained to navigate the archives,” Schobelock said. “Erin is such a good connection between those two worlds.”
Not only did Schobelock see Hvizdak throughout her thesis research, but she is studying alongside her as well. Since 2020, Hvizdak has been working toward her master’s degree in history one class at a time. Although passing classes is not “make or break” for her since she already has a job, Schobelock said it is clear Hvizdak cares about her education.
“We had to make a syllabus this week, and she’s like, ‘I’ve been working on this for weeks!’ The rest of us were like “oh, we’ll get it done,’ so I can tell she’s invested … because she cares,” she said.
Despite sacrificing her freedom on the weekends for a chance at formal learning, Hvizdak said she loves getting to know students outside the library on a more personal level as well as diving into her research topic.
The Online Biographical Dictionary of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the United States, an open-access database, sparked her interest in pursuing her master’s degree, she said. The project assigned names of unknown women to volunteers, asking them to find anything they could about the women.
For her volunteer effort, Hvizdak ordered microfilm to find niche information on the women – something she could spend hours talking about, she said with a laugh. Finding hidden collections in these small packages, which were increased in use during World War II to save documents from being destroyed, is a unique interest of hers. When she brings students into the microfilm room in the libraries’ Dimensions Lab, they “get really into it.”
Hvizdak completed six entries and said she found it inspiring to read about women working behind the scenes to build community.
WSU encourages professional development and provides the support system necessary to complete her master’s degree or attend conferences, which she is very lucky to have, Hvizdak said.
“By the end of the semester, I’m like, ‘oh my god, I’m dead, but let’s do it again,’” she said. “It’s important work to do, bringing new stories to light, so if that’s how I contribute to society, that’s how I contribute.”