VANCOUVER, Wash. – Alyssa Sperry’s research for her University Scholars Honors thesis on the history of salt in Jamaica earned her the Library Research Excellence Award for 2018. It also changed her life.
The library research award is designed to recognize students who excel in using the library and its rich resources. Sperry, who graduated from WSU Vancouver in May with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a minor in history, used the library exceptionally well—and went far beyond it.
Drawing on a vast array of resources, her paper, “The Covenant of Salt: The History of Salt Production and Consumption in Jamaica,” is groundbreaking. Sperry demonstrated not only that salt production was a lucrative industry in Jamaica, but also that “the production of salt was directly implicated in the sweat and tears of the Atlantic world.”
Salt was essential to preserve the food that was eaten by sailing crews and the enslaved Africans they were transporting to the Caribbean sugar plantations, and therefore was key to maintaining the slave trade. In this way, Sperry wrote, “Salt also enabled colonial expansion and the development of the global economy.”
“Alyssa’s paper is an excellent example of strategizing about a research process, undertaking a search for primary and secondary sources, and then synthesizing those sources along the way to making her own contributions to a research topic,” said Library Director Karen Diller. “Members of the evaluation team were quite impressed with her research methods and final paper.”
“I believe this work will completely alter the ways in which historians not only incorporate the history of salt in their economic understanding of the Atlantic era’s other commodity histories, but future scholars will realize (as Alyssa’s research has unearthed) that Caribbean salt production was fundamental to the narrative of maritime mobility and plantation slavery in the Atlantic world,” said Professor of History Candice Goucher, who nominated Sperry for the award.
An idea takes root
Sperry arrived at her topic serendipitously. With a background in both the culinary arts and nutritional therapy, she was interested in the role of salt in the body and its cultural significance with food. Through her college classes, she became interested in Goucher’s studies of Caribbean food, and in a geology class she became ever more curious about the difference between sea salt and rock salt. Those interests came together for her honors thesis, in which she sought to learn whether Jamaica produced salt between the 15th and 19th centuries, as did other Caribbean islands, and what role Jamaican salt might have played in colonial expansion.
Sperry not only conducted a standard literature review but also traveled twice to Jamaica, where she visited archives, talked to people and found the memory and technology of salt mining preserved in small coastal communities. (Supportive faculty members, including Goucher and Professor Nicole Hess, helped her find grants for her travel.) She found sketches at the Library of Congress digital archives. “I got tidbits here and there,” she said. Mastering the online resource Google Scholar (“I learned a lot of tricks,” she said), she found primary sources such as journals, maps and slave narratives. She even did a chemical analysis of a salt sample with the help of Professor Mark Kramer and his laboratory at WSU Vancouver.
Sperry’s work is already getting significant academic recognition. She was invited to speak at the Second International Congress on the Anthropology of Salt in Mexico. With Goucher, she is co-writing an article about salt for the Journal of World History as well as a book chapter for the University of Alabama Press.
In the fall, Sperry will enter graduate school at the University of Oregon on a full scholarship. She will enter the university’s International Studies program, with a Food Studies focus.
“I knew I wanted to do research in the food industry, but I didn’t know how it would look,” Sperry said. “This has changed my entire life.”
About the Library Research Excellence Award
The annual award recognizes excellence in undergraduate research that demonstrates evidence of significant inquiry using the library, its resources and collections. Projects are evaluated by a panel of WSU Vancouver librarians. The recipient receives a $300 prize and will speak in the fall at the library’s Encounter Research series.
About WSU Vancouver
As one of six campuses of the Washington State University system, WSU Vancouver offers big-school resources in a small-school environment. The university provides affordable, high-quality baccalaureate- and graduate-level education to benefit the people and communities it serves. As the only four-year research university in Southwest Washington, WSU Vancouver helps drive economic growth through relationships with local businesses and industries, schools and nonprofit organizations.
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