A Man of Letters

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Historian & librarian William Peniston '77 is a detective of books & resources for research
From the Fall 2010 Caller
As librarian for the Newark Museum, William Peniston ’77 scouts out the resources curators and educators need to research the museum’s diverse collections in the arts and sciences. As a historian, he discovered an even rarer resource—one that led to his groundbreaking work uncovering the forgotten lives of ordinary people in 19th-century Paris.
William’s fascination with historical materials— indexes, atlases, encyclopedias—began when he studied history at Connecticut College and Lewis & Clark College. His continued interest led him to pursue master’s degrees in history and library science at the University of Maryland, then a PhD in French history at the University of Rochester. His love of books goes all the way back to his father, who filled their Cottage Grove home with books, and his love of French and history goes right back to Catlin Gabel.
“My French language education at Catlin Gabel, from Jean Claude Lachkar and Yves-Paul Barland, has been invaluable to me,” says William. “In my history classes, Gardiner Vinnedge and Dave Corkran emphasized the importance of reading original documents and writing coherent analyses of them.”
William credits CGS theater teacher Alan Greiner with helping him develop a sense of empathy through “the exploration of the thoughts and feelings of the characters we portrayed in our productions.” This empathy was an important component of his doctoral research in Paris, where he used police records to write a completely original social history that traced the lives of gay men, especially their relationships and behavior. Those records had never before been used as a historical source, and his dissertation and book, Pederasts and Others: Urban Culture and Sexual Identity in Nineteenth-Century Paris, is acknowledged as a significant look into a subculture that could have remain unexamined if not for William’s work.
William continued this personally and professionally satisfying work with Queer Lives: Men’s Autobiographies from Nineteenth-Century France, a collection of eight life stories, which he translated and edited with his colleague Nancy Erber. And this work continues today as they prepare their book for the French-speaking market.
“As the librarian here at the Newark Museum—a museum dedicated to the fine arts, the decorative arts, and the natural sciences with a very strong educational focus—I have had the pleasure of working with creative curators, inquisitive scientists, enthusiastic educators, talented designers, curious registrars, and professional administrators,” says William. “The nuts and bolts of librarianship might seem a bit lackluster, but the final product of the researcher’s work, whether it be an exhibition, a program, an article, or a book, is always gratifying to see, especially when the researcher acknowledges the help, however humble it might have been, that I have given him or her. Perhaps it is those short words of thanks about which I am most pleased.”