Conversation with Peter Boag: The Value of Digitization and Serendipity in Archival Research

For more than 10 years, WSU’s Peter Boag has studied and written of male and female cross-dressers in the 19th-century American West—a research area not typically associated with the era of westward land grabs, Native American conflicts, the Gold Rush and the transcontinental railroad.


Professor and Columbia Chair in the History of the American West, Boag navigated a frontier of his own in writing about his field. As he described in the fall 2011 issue of Oregon Historical Quarterly, historians of sexuality and gender often find scant primary resources among archives and public records repositories that did not collect items related to homosexuality and transgenderism. The subjects were taboo, except in newspapers.

Before the advent of digitization, historians pored through microfilmed back issues for weeks, months or years to find the newspaper reports they were looking for. Today’s digitized newspaper databases now make it possible to search any topic, in any number of newspapers, in minutes.

That one technological advance made it possible for Boag to write his 2011 book, “Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past,” winner of the 2013 Ray Allen Billington Prize for Best Book in American Frontier History from the Organization of American Historians.

“Digitization has transformed the way historians do research,” he said recently.

Serendipity also has a place in successful historical research, as Boag discovered while looking into his family’s history late one night while writing the book. His Scottish forebears had migrated from Canada to Meeker County, Minnesota, in the 1870s before moving on to the Pacific Northwest.

That night, Boag uncovered a digitized history of Meeker County from 1876 and looked for mention of his family. He didn’t find it, but he found someone else: a cross-dresser named Joseph Lobdell, born Lucy Ann Lobdell, whom he had hoped to include in “Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past.” Lobdell had made a brief, but memorable appearance in the same county as the Boags.

That same serendipity later helped Boag find a 1918 letter hand-written by his grandfather, Gustav Adolf Horand, in the Swiss Federal Archives in Bern, Switzerland, while Boag was a Fulbright Scholar in Germany. The letter, written in German, explained the circumstances that prevented Horand from serving in the Swiss Army during World War I—and gave Boag a piece of a family puzzle he had wanted to know for years.

“When you go into an archive, whether physical or digital, it’s amazing when you find something so interesting and enlightening,” Boag said. “These things that you find by chance, they really can give meaning to your life and change the direction of what you’re looking for.”

—By Nella Letizia

WSU Libraries has a rich database of digital collections, encompassing everything from photographs, maps and media to scrapbooks and regional, WSU and Native American history. To find a particular collection, or simply to browse, visit