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Uncommon Sense

By Karin Wulf · October 14, 2021

Our History’s Next Generation

#VastEarlyAmerica 8 min read

A blog post by Karin Wulf

Note: This is the last blog post by Karin Wulf in her role as executive director of the Omohundro Institute. Her final day at the head of the team is today. We congratulate her and wish her the best of luck in her new role as the Director and Librarian of the John Carter Brown Library.

October 14, 2021—The Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture has a long and significant history.  Founded in 1943 as the Institute of Early American History & Culture, an independent research institute sponsored by William & Mary and Colonial Williamsburg, its mission was to center colonial and early national history.  The first volume of the new series of the journal the new institute took over, then titled The William and Mary Quarterly:  A Magazine of Early American History, Institutions, and Culture, was published in January of 1944.  In “Historical News” for that first issue John Pomfret wrote about the journal and the institute, describing how the latter was the logical outcome of the relationship between W&M and CW.  Preceded by perhaps a full decade of meetings of historians concerned about the lack of study of the early period (in the early twentieth century, historical focus seemed to tilt Civil War and later), these two Williamsburg institutions came together to emphasize the value of research and scholarship.

Over the last 8 years I’ve written posts for Uncommon Sense about so many topics—though mostly about #VastEarlyAmerica.  I’ve written about the history of the Omohundro name, more about that first issue of the WMQ, and, often, about the many changes to the OI’s programs.  I’ve written about our own hard histories and about the work of inclusion that requires accountability.  These are topics that encompass scholarship and its practice, the very histories of how we do history.

With the recent renewal of William & Mary’s and Colonial Williamsburg’s support for the OI, and with 2026, the 250th anniversary of United States independence and a once in a generation opportunity to share the histories of the period in our collective grasp, it’s a good time to think back to look forward.  We are always better historians when we attend closely to the history of the institutions that shape our work.  Our histories are better, fuller, more deeply contextualized when we are aware of how these institutions have grown, how they have been shaped, and how they have been central to the making of history.  

The ambitions and commitments of people working together have shaped the OI for generations.  It’s been an enormous privilege, an incredible opportunity to learn and be challenged, and also a lot of fun to play a role in the most recent generation of the OI.  We have tackled big issues together, and even nomenclature.  When I came to the OI it was often referred to as “the Institute.”  But as longtime OI Board Member Sid Lapidus regularly commented, “WHICH Institute?”  Who would know without specifying?  And “Omohundro Institute” is a mouthful, even without the “of Early American History & Culture.”  Sid liked “OI,” and he brought us all around to it.  It’s hard to remember now when we didn’t always say “OI.”  But OI seems indicative of more than a fresh name; it represents a commitment to inclusivity, to welcome, to open doors—and to recognizing that change can be a very good thing, especially for legacy institutions.  It’s too easy to use the term community casually, to describe any group with commonalities as a community.  The OI’s community, though, is a real one, and a really big one, full of people who are passionate about the meaning and the urgent work of history, people who are willing to work hard, to disagree, and to come together to uncover and make accessible a fuller picture of early America.

This generation of the OI community is focused on inclusive practice along multiple axes.  We know that fuller picture of early America requires the most inclusive historical practice, and a hard look at where we fall short.  The recent announcement of NEH ARP funding for fellowships to support scholars who are contingent faculty or working outside academic employment recognizes the cost to all of us when their scholarship is not supported.  The intensifying crisis in humanities employment, exacerbated by the pandemic, reveals ever more starkly the long-standing challenges faced by so many of our colleagues.  There is more work to be done, and the OI is galvanized to do it.

Joining in the work of this recent generation, I am more grateful than I can say to the university, to CW, to the individual donors and foundations who support the OI’s work, to all those who gave their time to read manuscripts and fellowship applications, to serve on the Board and the Council, to join in seminars and Coffeehouse tables, to share their research, to labor over publications, to be interviewed or write blogs or comment—to join in the community’s work.  I am ever grateful to the dedicated experts who are the OI’s staff for the honor of working alongside you.

Now, with excellent Board and Council guidance, fresh sponsorship commitments, exciting programming ahead, and a leadership team with Cathy Kelly at the helm, the OI’s next generation is here.  I am excited to transition to my next role, both at the John Carter Brown Library and Brown University but also forever part and booster of the OI community.

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