Between the Lines: May-June 2010

June 1, 2010

“We’re in the business of knowing a good story,” says David Jarmul, Duke’s associate vice president for news and communications. Jarmul and his colleague Camille Jackson, who had been covering the university’s involvement in Haiti, knew they had a good story in graduate student Julia Gaffield.

Gaffield told friends through her Facebook page that she had discovered an original printed copy of Haiti’s Declaration of Independence. The early-February posting (later removed) came shortly after she had made the find in Britain’s National Archives. One professor overseeing her work reached out to Jarmul’s office about doing a “little piece or release about this.”

The reaction there was that post-earthquake Haiti was big news and that the story had the evocative quality of a treasure hunt. Jarmul confirmed the discovery’s accuracy and potential significance with Gaffield’s advisers at Duke and with one of Haiti’s leading archivists, now doing research at Brown University. He also consulted with former Duke librarian David Ferriero, the current U.S. archivist. “All were excited about the discovery,” he says.

In late March the British archives reported the find (though not conspicuously) on its website, meaning the news couldn’t be contained for long. At the same time, the university was looking to basketball’s Final Four weekend, certain to dominate media coverage of Duke for several days and to be consuming for university communicators. Duke decided to release the story before the weekend, on April 1.

For several days, Gaffield fielded an onslaught of interviews. Jarmul had given her a crash media-training course—making sure she was prepared for a range of questions, including whether the document should be repatriated to Haiti. The news office shaped a robust website, which featured Haiti background provided by Gaffield’s advisers, Deborah Jenson and Laurent Dubois (who had come to know, through their shared interest in Haiti, The New York Times reporter who would write about the discovery of the declaration).

“A lot of research does have a thrill-of-the-chase quality,” Jarmul says. “Reminding people of that is good not just for Duke but for scholarship generally.”