An Introductory Q&A with Newberry President Daniel Greene

Daniel Greene joined the Newberry in August 2019 as President and Librarian. A historian dedicated to the public humanities, Greene arrived ready to build on the Newberry’s 132-year legacy, with an eye toward expanding user engagement opportunities both inside the library and beyond our walls.

In what follows, we pepper Daniel with a few questions as a way of introducing him to our loyal readers and library users. For some of you, this will be a re-introduction to Daniel; previously, he spent several years on staff at the Newberry, serving as Director of our Scholl Center for American History and Culture and then as Vice President of Research and Academic Programs before joining the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2014 as Exhibitions Curator and Historian.

This interview has been edited slightly for the blog.

What are you currently reading?

I’m reading a book right now called Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer, the Copy Chief for Random House. It’s a fantastic writing guide: it’s funny, it’s nerdy, and it sometimes gets into the weeds (in a good way) to explain the principles of good, clear writing. Dreyer is doing something that I would say we’re trying to do here at the Newberry, which is to enable readers and writers to appreciate and produce quality writing.

Your academic and professional background is as a historian. What historical eras or themes are you most passionate about investigating in your scholarship?

My own work has focused on urgent issues regarding what it means to be an American. Sometimes I’ve approached this question from an intellectual and cultural history perspective by studying metaphors that we use to describe difference in America, whether it’s the “melting pot” or cultural pluralism or multiculturalism today. I like to ask where those metaphors come from and how they’ve been contested at various points in our nation’s history.

I’m also interested in how ideas delineating who gets to be an American are lived out on the ground, in the lived experience of immigrants and refugees. A recent public history project that I worked on examined how many immigrants and refugees were admitted into the country during the 1930s and 40s—the height of Nazism in Europe and a time when Americans were closing their doors and adopting more restrictive immigration policies. The project also analyzed the public debates Americans were having at this time about immigration and national identity.

All of my interests are linked by the question who’s in and who’s out when we’re talking about what it means to be an American, and who gets to decide who’s in and who’s out?

The “melting pot” is one of those phrases that seems to have always been part of the American lexicon. But it must come from somewhere…

It does seem to have always been part of the zeitgeist. But it actually has origins in the not-too-distant past. Ralph Waldo Emerson used the term “melting” or “smelting” when discussing ethnic or national difference in the United States. The term “melting pot,” however, really emerges in the early twentieth century to describe difference during the height of immigration in this country. It’s a contested term. What’s so interesting about “melting pot” is that it means different things to different people, and its meaning also changes over time.

The phrase is such a compelling entrée for contemplating evolving attitudes about national identity.

Do you have a favorite Newberry collection item?

One of the most exciting finds I’ve made in the Newberry collection came when I was co-curating an exhibition called Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North, which opened at the Newberry in 2013. We found a children’s toy, produced by Milton Bradley around 1865 or 1866, called the Myriopticon. It’s a little cardboard box with a proscenium stage presentation for the viewer. The box has two dowel rods that allow you to scroll through different images narrating scenes from the Civil War. Many of these images are linked to images that appeared in Harper’s Weekly during the war.

While this object relates to the print culture of the time and gives us a window into how Americans processed the Civil War once it was over, it’s also a surprising item to find at the Newberry in many ways.

What excites you most about the Newberry at this time?

I believe there are so many ways that the Newberry can engage the city of Chicago. One of the ways we can do that is through our transformed first floor. A recent renovation of the building has given us fantastic public program and exhibition spaces that allow us to engage with new audiences.

I’m also eager to see the Newberry reach beyond its walls to serve the city. We’re doing that already with a project called Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots. The project has put the Newberry at the center of a collaboration with more than a dozen Chicago cultural institutions to examine the legacy of the 1919 Chicago race riots.

This is an example of one way that the Newberry can bring historical perspectives to bear on issues that are urgent to Chicagoans today—issues of diversity, racial inequality, and inclusion. The Newberry very much wants to be part of these kinds of critical conversations, now and into the future.