Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Clayton State and NARA’s Shane Bell… Colonial America, the Space Race and Medieval Europe

Want to know about that experimental government those rebels constituted in 1787? Ask Shane Bell.

Want to know how Werner Van Braun oversaw the development of the Saturn V moon rocket? Ask Shane Bell.

Want to talk about Europe 700 years ago? Call the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Southeast Regional Archives and ask for Shane Bell.

Want to know who Shane Bell is? He’s a 2007 graduate of Clayton State University who holds a Bachelor of Arts in History. He’s also a student in the University’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (MALS) program, and an archives technician for NARA’s Southeast Regional Archives, located adjacent to the Clayton State campus. A 1993 graduate of Mount Zion High School who now lives in McDonough, Ga., Bell is one of the outstanding success stories of the on-going relationship between Clayton State’s History Department and both the National and Georgia Archives. And, yes, his interests extend to an eclectic combination of subjects, including colonial America, NASA and the space race, and medieval Europe.

Given his wide-ranging interests and his successes in both academics and archival work, it’s not surprising that Bell has a hand in a variety of historical projects and subjects. For example, he was profiled in the Huntsville Times last month for his work with NARA’s NASA holdings, notably the personal papers of Werner Von Braun. This month, he’s going to Philadelphia to take part in the Network to Freedom Conference on the Underground Railroad where he will focus on NARA’s holdings related to the Atlantic Slave Trade. He’s also a member of the Clayton State University Martin Luther King Day Planning Committee, helping plan the combined efforts of his alma mater and his employer in commemorating Martin Luther King during the week of Jan. 19, 2009. And, he has a part in NARA’s current celebration of Constitution Day.

“We are excited to have Shane as the advocate for the Southeast Region!” exclaims James McSweeney, regional administrator for NARA’s Southeast Region. “In fact, working with Mary Evelyn Tomlin, Shane developed a finding aid for the African Slave Trade records in our holdings.

“Shane is an excellent writer and has the unique ability to review complicated Federal records and laws, particularly from the U.S. District Courts, and to distill their essence and significance into brief descriptive narratives. Shane has applied these same skills to his work with our holdings from the Marshall Space Flight Center.”

While attending Georgia Perimeter College, Bell became interested in history and transferred to Clayton State to earn his B.A. in History, taking advantage of both the University’s outstanding History Department and its partnership with NARA and the Georgia Archives. In fact, during his final semester as an undergraduate, Bell worked as an intern at NARA (he credits Dr. Angelyn Hayes, Clayton State director of Career Services, for her role in finding what sounds like the ideal internship), researching federal slave trade laws and compiled the finding aid for the salve trade. Upon graduation, he was hired as a student employee with NARA, serving as an archives technician and working extensively with court records from the antebellum period and NASA records from Marshall Space Flight Center relating to von Braun. He has also assisted visiting scholars and authors working on various research projects.

“I was offered a student position during the internship and began work last summer after graduation,” he says of his NARA position. “It’s rare for a history major to actually get a job `doing’ history, so I feel very lucky. A day doesn’t go by that I’m not thinking about some historical issue or researching something. I am frequently stationed in the Research Room, so this requires a little bit of knowledge about a lot of things. Working in there makes you realize how much you don’t know about the world.”

Still, he does have knowledge “about a lot of things.” Whereas most historians are likely to focus on a single subject or a single period in history, Bell, in addition to his NASA and antebellum work for NARA is also well-versed in medieval history, having presented a paper at the Medieval-Renaissance Conference at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise in the fall of 2007.

“I’m not sure how it happened,” he says of his multiplicity of historical interests. “I have always been fascinated with the medieval period in Europe. I was lucky enough to spend a couple of weeks in Europe about 10 years ago and was captivated by the sheer number of old buildings, artifacts, and historic sites throughout the region. It seemed that everywhere you went there was some aspect of the past that remained; a past that was much older than anything in the U.S.

“Regarding the 20th Century, I became interested in the Space Age while working on my senior thesis. The theme of that semester was the 1950’s, and I wrote about the formation of NASA. The Space Age is interesting because it is something completely new in world history. Never before have humans been able to escape the earth and this has far reaching consequences for nearly every nation on the planet.”

As a native of metro Atlanta, Bell points out that you can’t really grow up in the South and escape discussions of the Civil War and slavery. However, he says that his main interest lies more with the colonial and early republic period.

“I find this period of U.S. history interesting for similar reasons as the Space Age,” he explains. “It was an experiment of a new type of government, however flawed in some ways -- slavery being only one example.

“The person from this period who is most interesting to me is Thomas Jefferson. He represents well the conflict in America during that early period -- he argued for freedom from oppression, yet he was a slave owner; he wanted to establish a nation of yeoman farmers, yet was wedded to the aristocracy.”

While “doing” history with NARA, Bell is also doing history in the MALS program, working towards his masters degree with a concentration in History.

“The breadth of the MALS program appealed to me from the start,” he says. “I liked the idea of a broad grounding in the liberal arts, especially in this era of almost extreme academic specialization. The kind of scope offered by the program will give me room to explore and find the right topic for my master’s thesis.”

Bell, who hopes to enter a Ph.D. program after earning his masters, credits current Clayton State History professors Dr. Adam Tate, Dr. Marko Maunula, Dr. Christopher Ward and retired professors Dr. Eugene Hatfield and Dr. Robert Welborn for their influence.

“I have bent Dr. Tate’s ear on numerous occasions and he has always been full of advice and a great sounding board to my questions and research ideas,” he says. “I would also add that I was very lucky to have been able to take classes as an undergrad from Drs. Welborn and Hatfield before their retirement.

“All of the professors I have worked with in the MALS program have been very helpful answering questions about graduate school, getting into a Ph.D. program, publications, conferences, and other matters of importance to academic dreamers like me.”

A unit of the University System of Georgia, Clayton State University is an outstanding comprehensive metropolitan university located 15 miles southeast of downtown Atlanta.
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