Spotlight on Seniors: Isabel Evans ’23 Finds Treasures and Inspiration in Library Archives

By Mirabella Miller ’24

Portrait of Isabel Evans '23 at Ella Strong Denison Library

Thanks to her love of reading, Isabel Evans ’23 felt destined to be an English major. But upon discovering her passion for environmental analysis (EA) during the course of her studies at Scripps, she decided to pursue a double major in both disciplines. Although Evans is writing two senior theses to fulfill each of her major requirements, she is utilizing a similar methodology for both: archival research.

“I never experience more joy than when I am reading or talking about books, and this was confirmed as soon as I walked into my first Scripps English course,” Evans says. “But studying EA has allowed me to grapple directly with some of the most pressing issues of our time–climate change, white supremacy, colonialism–from a truly interdisciplinary social sciences perspective.”

She honed the research skills needed for her theses through summer research projects supported by the Mellon Interdisciplinary Humanities Initiative (MIHI) and the Scripps Environmental Analysis Fund. She was also the recipient of the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation (AVDF) internship, which allows students to learn more about primary source materials and conduct research in the Ella Strong Denison Library collections. Her summer research was guided by Jennifer Martinez Wormser ’95, director and Sally Preston Swan Librarian for the Denison Library.

The work Evans did through the Mellon IHI and the AVDF internship helped determine the topic of her EA thesis, which focuses on the environmental education curricula at federal Indian boarding schools between 1890 and 1920. Evans is exploring these curricula as mechanisms through which the government attempted to suppress traditional Indigenous environmental knowledge and instruct Native children in capitalist and Euro-American ideas of thinking about land.

“By exposing the use of environmental education as a conduit for colonial violence, my thesis insists that there is no objective, unbiased approach to communicating environmental knowledge,” she says. “I also examine the ways in which Native students and educators at federal Indian schools and beyond have responded to this colonial violence by continuing to turn to the land as a source of healing, resilience, and resistance.”

Evans’ English research has also made use of archives, specifically those at Denison Library. Her thesis focuses on the earliest version of the Emily Dickinson poem “Further in Summer than the Birds,” written in 1865, and known as the Vanderbilt Variant because Dickinson included this early draft in a letter to Gertrude Vanderbilt. Scholars believed that this version of the poem was lost until the manuscript was rediscovered at Denison Library in 1986, making it the only Dickinson manuscript located outside of the Northeast United States and Washington, D.C.

Evans describes the manuscript as “a true treasure of Scripps College.” Her thesis is the first extended analysis of the Vanderbilt Variant as a self-contained poem and attempts to correct Dickinson scholars’ continued under-analysis of this variant by examining the “powerful ambiguities” of its poetic elements.

“Paying attention to such important details of the manuscript fundamentally alters how we understand the poem’s thematic interest in the sanctity of the natural world and the processes by which humans observe it,” Evans explains. She will be presenting her thesis and workshopping it for future publication at the Emily Dickinson International Society Critical Institute this summer.

Evans’ extensive archival research experience and formidable scholarship led to a job at Denison Library, which has been one of the most unforgettable aspects of her time at Scripps. Her opportunities at Denison also introduced her to the field she is pursuing as a career: archives, rare books, and special collections librarianship. Next fall, she will begin her MA in library and information studies at University College London.

“Denison is a space that never ceases to nurture my intellectual curiosity, bring me new knowledge, and fill me with joy,” she says. “Having the opportunity to propose, design, and conduct my own independent research projects on subjects I am passionate about has been one of the most rewarding and formative parts of my Scripps experience.”