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Spying at the Gotlieb Center

Seminar uncovers spies, and what they left behind


In the slide show above are some of the artifacts on display as part of Conspiracies and Spies.

To obtain a loan in the 1960s, students were required to sign the Student Loyalty Oath. Spy for the Soviets — or participate in antiwar demonstrations — and the loan was gone.

A copy of the Student Loyalty Oath is one of many artifacts on display at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center tonight as part of the center’s Student Discovery Seminar series. Called “Conspiracies and Spies,” it looks at BU’s collection of documents and artifacts involving some of the country’s infamous spies and alleged spies, from John Wilkes Booth to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

People are interested in spies because of the possibility of hidden truths in society, says event organizer Ryan Hendrickson, assistant director of manuscripts at the Gotlieb Center. “People like the idea of sneakiness, access to things that some people don’t have access to,” he says. “I don’t think they realize that spies are the lowest of the low — they usually gather material just by wading through tons of information.”

The main goal of the Student Discovery series is to get students comfortable with working with primary sources, says Hendrickson — in a sense acting like spies.

The artifacts include items historically significant and humorous, from transcriptions of the treason case against the Rosenbergs to an instruction manual for would-be spies: train in the use of messenger pigeons and always carry a saw and a brandy-filled flask.

“It’s one thing to see these kinds of documents in a textbook, but it’s another to have a personal connection, to hold them,” Hendrickson says. “It brings these characters down to earth. And it’s fun.”

Conspiracies and Spies, part of the free series Student Discovery Seminars, is tonight, September 23, at 7 p.m. in the HGARC Reading Room, Mugar Memorial Library, 771 Commonwealth Ave., fifth floor. Alston Purvis, a College of Fine Arts associate professor, will share insights. More information is available here.

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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