2017 Nonfiction Award Finalist: An Interview with Linda Barrett Osborne on This Land Is Our Land

In the introduction to This Land is Our Land, Linda Barrett Osborne writes how she hopes her book acts as a conversation starter for such an important part of American history. Not only does she successfully cover the vast topic of immigration in this finalist for YALSA’s 2017 Nonfiction Award, but after reading This Land is Our Land, I was certainly eager for our conversation.

How do you think the topic of immigration can be addressed for different age groups?

Almost any age group can start with finding out their own family backgrounds. Then students can share their histories with their classmates and see how many places people come from in a class. From middle school on, students can talk about what they hear in the media. Do they think the stories/treatments of immigrants are fair? On the other hand, is it a problem to accommodate many new immigrants each year? After discussing how Americans have always been ambivalent about new immigrants, see if they are surprised that our doubts and objections stretch back to the beginnings of settlement in America. How would they wish their families had been treated? How would they like some or all first generation immigrants to be treated?

During your research was there something that surprised you about America’s history?

I knew that many immigrant groups had been discriminated against, but I was surprised by the intensity and disparagement of the rhetoric used against them. There are parallels with the way African Americans have been characterized. I was also surprised at the extent to which Asian immigrants were discriminated against. I didn’t realize that before 1952, most of them were not eligible to become American citizens.

You share so many personal stories and primary resources in TLIOL. Do you feel connected as you conduct research? How do you decide what to include or how much of someone’s history to include?

Yes, I definitely feel connected to other people’s stories as I read them. I am particularly moved by oral histories that tells the stories of ordinary people in natural words. (They are more immediate than written biographies and memoirs, though these can be moving too.) When a book spans so many centuries and countries, as This Land Is Our Land does, I can’t give more than a paragraph or two to any one person. I look for words that are emblematic of the theme but also expressed in a personal and distinct way, so that each quote adds something to the whole.

As a retired senior writer and editor for the Library of Congress Publishing Office, can you tell us how you conducted research for that job? Any research techniques to pass along to students?

I retired from the Library of Congress Publishing Office in October 2011 and my job was to write and edit books using the collections of the Library as a focus, aiming the books at thoughtful lay readers. We did a lot of research before we wrote and documented everything. The Library has so many primary sources—the actual first editions from the 1860s, for example–and many more media than books: prints and photographs, manuscripts, movies and TV, music, maps, rare books, all of which we researched and used to illustrate our books. We often worked with scholars who reviewed our work.  I’ve written and published three books since I retired, using the same methods I learned at the Library to research and compile them.

  • I start with a list of basic sources I compile by looking through a subject catalog and in the library stacks. I also get recommendations from American history professors I know; in the case of your students, I think this would be teachers and librarians.
  • I also look for online sources by subject and use bibliographies from the books I find. I use post-it notes as I read, marking passages I might quote or ideas and events I want to summarize (or copy and paste from a website.)
  • When I’ve finished a book, I type out all the quotes on computer, as well as facts and summaries of ideas. I do this for each source. It really helps to mark a quote as soon as you see it (the few times I think, I’ll find this again, I don’t) and also to indicate where you found it right then. Typing these out helps me think of how I will tell my overall story. I do a chapter outline and indicate topics within the chapters and match the quotes and facts to each one. Then I start to write from the information I’ve gathered.
This Land is Our Land Chapters

You write how immigrants performed important jobs throughout America’s history, but also how people view them negatively. How do you ensure you balance all sides of history in your chapters?

That’s an interesting question. In This Land Is Our Land, I don’t balance the pro- and con-arguments for immigration in each chapter. I was more interested in all the negative feelings about immigrants and how that contrasted with our ideals stated on the Statue of Liberty and the idea of the melting pot. I wanted to show that resistance to immigration has existed through most of our history. But it’s also important to me to get the positive side in. I don’t just write about what was unjust, brutal, racist–I write about what was hopeful, courageous, enduring. Through the words of immigrants themselves, I hope to show ordinary people living lives of dignity and success despite hostility and discrimination. That’s the balance I wanted to attain. In the last chapter, from 1945 to today, I did go back and forth on some pro- and con-immigration arguments, being careful with facts and statistics. I don’t claim to understand how to reform immigration law, but I am pro-immigrant in the sense that I think all people should be treated as human beings, with respect, and not with hatred and contempt.

People know of the importance of Ellis Island which welcomed and processed immigrants on the east coast, but there is less attention given to Angel Island for doing a similar job on the west coast. How did you combat less information being available about Angel Island?

There’s a lot about Angel Island when you start to look for it! There are books, primary source records, statistics, photographs, personal accounts, and newspaper stories—more than I could use in one chapter of a book. But again, your question is interesting, because it points out the bias in the way we emphasize Ellis Island and Europe over Angel Island and Asia, which I think is beginning to change. (There are differences between Angel and Ellis Islands themselves—more people went through Ellis Island for a longer period of time and most got through. It was much harder to get through Angel Island, where hopeful immigrants could be held for years.)

Your books have ranged from points in history from WWI, civil rights, and now immigration. Do you have a favorite period in our history?

My first three middle school books were on African American history starting with slavery and ending in the present, so I think that my interest lay more in a topic than a period. But I was very interested in the period between the late 1890s and 1954 and how segregation developed in the South and discrimination flourished in the North because this was not discussed nearly as much as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. My interest in immigration came out of my interest in my own family background, when my great-grandparents emigrated from Italy in the 1880s and the 1890s. Part of the immigration story takes place during the years before, during, and after World War I, as Americans became more suspicious of foreigners. African Americans participated in the Great Migration from South to North and West during World War I, and their experience has many parallels with that of immigrants from other countries. Everything turns out to be connected. The short answer is probably 1860-1954 is my favorite period to learn more about.

You conclude with a chapter on refugees and how they differ and are, in a way, a “special kind of immigrant”. Immigration and refugees are current topics today. Where do you gather your news and information to have current and reliable information?

I use up-to date online sources or statistics and trends from places like the U.S. Census Bureau and the Citizen and Immigration Services (which is part of Homeland Security and used to be the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization). I look at the actual text of laws (not just summaries in other articles), from university websites—Yale has a useful one. I do use journalism sources like the New York Times and the Huffington Post—when I use them I am quoting opinion, not fact—but I get a lot of quotes in favor of restricting immigration from online newspapers as well. I read a lot of scholarly books written since 2010 by renowned or distinguished professors from universities, often recommended to me by an American history professor. I used United Nations websites to find information on and images of refugees (one of them is data.un.org). I also used organization and agency websites, like those of the Organization of American States and Pew Hispanic Center. Finally, I used the website of the Center for Immigration Studies, a non-partisan, not-profit organization that gave both pro- and con-quotes (without favoring one or the other) for the number and native country of immigration.

What are you currently reading? Or what are you currently working on?

I’m currently reading The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989 by Frederick Taylor, and The Brutal Telling, a mystery by Louise Penny. I love mysteries and often alternate them with reading history. My newest book, Come On In, America: The United States in World War I, is coming out in March 2017. I’m exploring a few ideas for a new children/young adult book, but nothing definite next.

-Sarah Carnahan, currently reading The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork