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Katherine Aaslestad Essay

Travel has shaped the way I think about history and the way I conduct my own historical research.  Here, I will provide two examples. Travel provides individuals with alternative perspectives and can dispel preconceptions of places, people, and events.  In my case, travel always generated more questions about the places that I visited than I could ever answer.  I had this experience throughout the course of my youth. Traveling to, and living in, both northern and southern states generated years of questions about the legacy of slavery in the United States, the experience and consequences of the long-past Civil War, and regional differences within my country.  In my High School history class in Maryland, I sought to write a semester project on women, families, and plantation life during the Civil War.  The question emerged from summer visits to Louisiana.  I never completed that project though, the teacher considered the question unimportant. 

My research interests also emerged from travels. I visited Germany for the first time as a teenager while living in Olso where my great-aunts and great-uncles shared horrible stories of the Germans and the war they brought to Norway in 1940.  My grandfather, a sea captain who fought in the Battle of the Atlantic, had already shared his scorn of the Germans most of my life.  When I arrived in Germany at age 18, however, I did not find the "evil Mordor" that I had expected.  Traveling throughout Germany opened up so many new questions for me every day.  And I wanted to know more. I wanted to know why my worst expectations of Germans had been foiled, and how my familys' stories related to the lives of the friendly people I met in Youth Hostels.  Travels to Germany, even now, continue to challenge me with new questions and the desire to investigate.

As an historian of modern Germany, I travel to archives and libraries to conduct research.  The material I examine is not to be found online.  I need to pour though dusty documents, well-worn newspapers, fragile letters and pamphlets singed from fire and wartime destruction.  Traveling to these archives and working with these sources facilitates my research in so many ways. I get new ideas and questions, see new perspectives, and identify new problems by working with the sources.  Sometimes the very source where I hope to find important material is disappointing, but new questions emerge that bring me to different documents that illuminate my research question in new and surprising ways. Within the archives, I travel through the sources.

Finally, travel and visits to the countries and cities that I research is very meaningful and continues to raise new questions for me.  When I meet people during my travels and hear their stories and their own understandings of history, I always gain new perspectives and insights. When I walk through Hamburg, Berlin or Leipzig, I see the city before me, but I also imagine buildings, city walls, and market places that have long disappeared.  History is a discipline based on gathering facts and information, analyzing and  interpreting that information to explain past events and reveal their relevance to the present. But the study of history also requires the cultivation of historical imagination that helps us consider new questions and track down the necessary documents and sources so that we have a meaningful story to share.  Travel is crucial to the  development of that historical imagination just as it is to both the general and complex questions it elicits. In history, as in travel, one needs an open mind; one needs to be open to new perspectives and questions one encounters along the way.