“Whaling Logbooks”: The 2024 Senior Fellowship Exhibit traces maritime history

  • 19th century color print of boat full of men being tossed by waves with whale with horns and open mouth alongside and floating barrel in waters
  • Open pages of a captain's sea log filled with handwriting and on left 3 black paintings of masted ships and on right one similar ship
  • Period print in pastel colors showing 5 men in boat along shore watching 2 men with sticks killing seals on the beach
  • Dark background with gray images of whales, three-masted ship, and white lettering that reads "Whaling Logbooks Records of a Maritime Industry"
April 23, 2024

For nearly two centuries, the coast of New England was home to the “Yankee” whaling industry. In Connecticut, the industry operated from ports in New London, Mystic, and New Haven.

This exhibit—curated by AJ Laird ’24, this year’s senior exhibit fellow—features logbooks from the Sterling Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Whaling Logs Collection. Laird, who has firsthand experience as a deckhand on sailing vessels, also conducted research at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts and at the Portsmouth Athenaeum in New Hampshire.

The Whaling Logs Collection

During the early 19th and early 20th centuries, mariners’ logbooks were essential navigational tools, allowing ship’s captains to track a vessel’s position in terms of latitude and longitude. As the works in this exhibition show, logbooks extensively documented sea voyages, revealing the complex world of the whaling industry. The books were also tools for gathering information to map ocean charts and track climate patterns and wind systems that would affect a ship’s passage. “Not merely record books,” Laird said, “these logs tell a tangible, visual story of an ocean-going industry.”

Many of these books in the library’s collection—ranging from oversized canvas-bound books to small diary-like volumes—also contain sketches, recipes, nautical calculations, and hand-drawn maps by ship’s captains. Laird also examined letters, charts, maps, and other seafarers’ materials to tell the story of whaling life and culture. Sailors’ journals, private letters, crew lists, and ships’ contracts illuminate the lived experience of the seamen who worked on whalers. 
“Whaling Logbooks: Records of a Maritime Industry” is on view in the exhibition corridor of Sterling Memorial Library from April 29 through Oct. 6. 
Laird will be providing a curator’s tour of the exhibition on Wed., May 1, at 4:30 p.m., and will welcome questions and conversation at the opening reception that follows.

The Senior Exhibit Fellowship

The Senior Exhibit Fellowship at Yale Library, introduced in 2021, expanded a previous program that annually gave a selected rising senior the opportunity to curate an exhibition based on the student’s senior essay. Laird is only the second student to receive the summer fellowship, which provides financial support for a research residency on campus. The fellowship also provides mentoring support from a library advisor, faculty advisor, and the library’s exhibit production staff.

Laird’s librarian advisor is James Kessenides, Kaplanoff Librarian for American History, Department of Area Studies and Humanities Research Support; Mark Peterson, Edmund S. Morgan Professor of History, Department of History, is Laird’s faculty sponsor.

Read about the 2023 Senior Fellowship Exhibit and curator Chucho Martínez Padres.

Learn more about the fellowship program and how to submit a proposal.

—Deborah Cannarella

Images: “A Tub for the Whale!” by James Gillray, 1806; “Journal of a Whaling Voyage” by Moses F. Little, 1848; “A View of Staaten Island with a Herd of Seals” by Sigismund Bacstrom, ca. 1792; Exhibition graphic by Sidney Hirschman;