Parsing the Past
Alumni Archivists Help Keep History Tangible While Containing The Digital Explosion
by Matt Getty
April 1, 2011
College Archivist Jim Gerencser ’93 and Archives & Special Collections intern Allyson Glazier ’11 prepare to scan a watercolor created by local artist Paul Bloser in about 1930. It depicts Dickinson, circa 1850.
History takes many forms. Sometimes it’s a faded, hand-written diary entry dated Dec. 7, 1941, reading, “We thought it was another drill until a bomb went off.” Sometimes it’s a restored iron-lung machine that can still bring tears to the eyes of those who lived through America’s polio scare. And sometimes it’s a petrified loaf of orange nut bread still carrying a faint citrus scent decades after an eccentric artist dropped it into a cardboard box. But no matter what form it takes, according to the growing number of Dickinsonians working in archives, that history is almost always worth saving.
“There is something so important about preserving that physical record you can hold in your hands, the original documents and artifacts behind what we read about as history,” says Elizabeth Marzuoli Scott ’96, who labeled and indexed that shriveled, blackened loaf of orange nut bread as a project cataloger in the Andy Warhol Museum’s archives in Pittsburgh. The loaf, which had been mailed to the artist by his cousin, was one of more than 300,000 items Warhol had crammed into 612 brown boxes throughout his life.
“He was kind of a hoarder, and he would basically throw anything in there,” Scott explains. During her three years on the six-year project (scheduled for completion in 2014) she came across everything from junk mail and fast-food wrappers to letters from Liza Minnelli and Truman Capote. Though the contents often veered toward the ridiculous, Scott, who is now the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s archivist/records management librarian, remains confident that her hours combing through each box were well spent.
“Once you put it all together,” she says, “it will really spell out his life and give a fuller picture of who Warhol was.”
Steven D’Avria ’07, associate archivist for Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in New York City, also knows that artifacts can tell a much richer story than a history book. Among the materials he oversees are AA members’ letters from the 1940s, when the scarcity of chapters meant that some members could only struggle toward sobriety through correspondence with the organization’s main office.
“I could show you a series of letters in which someone goes from begging for help to becoming a fully functioning member of society again,” he explains. “There’s no way you can put a price tag on something like that.”
Of course, being an archivist for an organization that prizes anonymity also poses a special challenge. While D’Avria helps hundreds of scholars find the AA reports, letters and records they need, he also fights to protect the privacy of past members. Before laying eyes on most materials, researchers must be vetted by a committee and pledge to uphold the organization’s Anonymity Tradition, which forbids the use of members’ last names.
“A lot of people tell me my position seems somewhat ironic,” says D’Avria, who as a proud Dickinsonian also notes that he learned through his work that Benjamin Rush was among the first to write seriously about alcoholism. “The material we have is of great evidential value to people studying the history of addiction … but we keep tight control over any personal material, so it’s definitely a unique challenge.”
Unique challenges, it turns out, are quite common in archival work. University of Maryland Archivist and Associate Curator Anne Keyes Turkos ’77, for instance, may have entered her job fully prepared to manage the university’s linear mile of paper documents, half-million photographs and more than 10,000 pieces of film and video, but one of her key duties never arose in her library-science courses.
“Among my most solemn responsibilities is the care for the real Testudo, the taxidermied diamondback terrapin that was the model for the original statue of our mascot,” she says with a chuckle.
Turkos found the terrapin stashed in a box among the library stacks when she joined the university in 1985. The symbol of the university’s athletic pride had a cracked shell and a patch of skin missing from his head, but Turkos worked with a Smithsonian Institution conservator to restore Testudo, placing him in a custom-designed, humidity-controlled display case to preserve him for posterity. Today, in addition to managing the archives’ more than 1,500 annual research requests, she regularly wheels out the hallowed terrapin for special events—limiting his exposure to direct light, of course.
Like Turkos, Cassie Pyle Nespor ’04 needed to master a new set of skills two years ago when she became the curator for Youngstown State University’s archives and medical museum, which houses more than 10,000 medical devices dating back to the 1700s. In addition to the iron lung that captures the history of polio so viscerally, Nespor has had to learn how to identify, catalog and preserve items ranging from a grisly Civil War-era amputation kit to a wooden X-ray machine from the 1920s, which she describes as “something right out of Frankenstein.”
“I look at some of that stuff, and I don’t even know what it is,” Nespor admits, explaining that she’s working with a retired professor and local medical professionals to identify the devices and organize them according to the National Library of Medicine’s cataloging system. “I also still sometimes find traces of old pharmaceuticals when I come across boxes that haven’t been opened. I might find a little vial of morphine, and it’s like, OK, let’s put that aside for the hazardous-waste disposal team.”
Fortunately, Dickinson has prepared its alumni archivists to deal with this wide variety of materials since most of them worked in the college’s Archives & Special Collections either as student workers or interns.
“One of the things that really helped me is that when I worked in Dickinson’s archives, they had me do everything,” says Tom Flynn ’07, document librarian/archivist at Winston-Salem State University. Beyond caring for printed pieces (like that diary of a missionary nun living in Hawaii during the Pearl Harbor attack), Flynn has had to learn how to preserve the signature red jacket worn by Clarence “Big House” Gaines, the university’s legendary basketball coach of nearly five decades.
“As an archivist, you never know what you’re going to work with,” he explains. “It could be documents. It could be photographs or film. It could be a jacket—or something entirely different.”
Perhaps that’s why the Waidner-Spahr Library, whose archives house everything from Benjamin Rush’s Bible to Joseph Priestley’s reflecting telescope, has been fertile ground for budding archivists. In a survey of 52 former archives work-study students from 1999 to 2008, College Archivist Jim Gerencser ’93 found that 13 of the 30 who responded had gone on to archives-related careers, and more than half (17) said their experiences at Dickinson influenced their career path.
“One reason I think we’ve seen so many go on to work in the field is that we try to have them do projects that are interesting to them,” says Gerencser. “Because we have such a wide variety of materials, they get a chance to try their hand at any number of tasks.”
One task now common to all archivists, however, is wrestling with the explosion of digital information, which presents as many opportunities as challenges.
While Turkos is eagerly digitizing all of the University of Maryland’s football-game films to make them available for online streaming, she worries about the impact the proliferation of digital media will have on archives in the future.
“People think, ‘Oh it’s OK, we have those files backed up on CD,’ but will that information be compatible with hardware and software in the future?” she wonders. “And we don’t even know how stable those media are. Some studies have shown that a CD might only last 30 years. So we really need to think about how we’re going to deal with all the electronic information we’re generating now. If we don’t, we’re going to create an enormous black hole.”
Take Sean Fisher ’89’s recent discovery of more than 1,000 sheets of 75-year-old engineering plans for buildings throughout the Massachusetts state parks system. When he came across the rolled-up plans stacked in a dusty garage attic in Cochituate State Park last fall, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation archivist quickly bagged them and removed them from the attic, amazed that they’d stayed intact beneath a leaky roof.
“I’ve had a lot of basement and attic discoveries, but that was a huge ‘wow,’ ” says Fisher, who’s amidst a five-year project scouring the files of all of Massachusetts’ hundreds of state parks for similar finds. “Our park planners are going to undertake historic-preservation work on those buildings, so having those plans now is invaluable.”
But shift Fisher’s moment of discovery 75 years into the future, replace those abandoned rolled-up sheets with a stack of forgotten CDs or DVDs, and now all that vital information has simply vanished.
Though there’s no silver bullet for this problem, the archivists argue that vigilance will be the key to ensuring that our reliance on digital media doesn’t leave a “black hole” in history.
“People often just think of archivists as being focused on the past, but thinking about the future is as much a part of the job,” Gerencser explains. “If you have something on a piece of paper, you could maybe count on it being there 100 years from now, but you can’t say the same thing about digital information. You can’t just stick it in the attic, forget about it and expect it to be there in just 20 years. We have to be much more proactive.”
Let’s hope that proactive approach works, because beyond the eye-opening exhibits of terrapins, jackets and orange nut loaves, archives are essential to our understanding of history.
“You can’t overstate the value archives have for historians,” says Caryn Radick ’93, processing archivist at Rutgers University. “If you think of history as a puzzle, archives are where many of the puzzle pieces are preserved and organized. Without that, there’s no way to put together a picture of the past.”