As most of us know, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the onset of World War I. The Irvin Department of Rare Books is marking this event with a most thought-provoking exhibit, “The World in 1914.” Jeffrey Makala, curator for this exhibit, has chosen to present not the war itself but the socio-cultural, technological, and international context within which the so-called great powers found themselves in the year 1914. It is fair to say that nobody at the beginning of the year envisaged what lay ahead.
By 1914 an old order was already dying. Women and labor in both England and America were demanding equal rights. The automobile was promising greater mobility for everyone as industry mechanized assembly lines pushing out skilled labor. The old European empires in Africa and elsewhere were being challenged and America was faced with border instability from its Southern neighbor Mexico.
War itself was changing. The exhibit features a quote by Winston Churchill, himself a war correspondent during the Boer War, that we must above all remain gentlemen. The Boer War had already undermined such an assumption and WWI would soon end it. Technology, if nothing else, made mass indiscriminate killing possible. A visual of horse-mounted lancers being machine gunned down by an armed automobile clearly makes the point.
While “The World in 1914” remains on display through December 12, it has already sparked two presentations open to the public. Curator Jeffrey Makala led a tour through the exhibit. His knowledge of the exhibit’s artifacts, all from the library’s collections, augmented what was there. The talk by Dr. David Snyder of the History Department invited the audience to think about parallels between 1914 and 2014 — an unsettling exercise as it turned out. The Irvin Department’s holdings and the willingness of University experts to present and enhance their value provide a rich resource for us in the community, and one that I am most thankful for.