Ask the Archivist: Favorite Items

ask the archivist- letters

Ask the Archivist

by Jim Gerencser ’93

Instead of discussing just one item, I’m going to mention a whole category. For me, the most interesting items are among the rarest — those things that show us the college experience from the perspective of the students themselves. What is in relatively short supply among our varied collections are letters, journals, scrapbooks, photographs and other memorabilia that show us what students were thinking, how they were spending their free time and how they were growing as individuals during their years at Dickinson. It is relatively infrequent that the diaries kept by -students, the letters they sent to family and friends or the snapshots they took find their way to our vault.

During his first year at Dickinson, 16-year-old Horatio Collins King, class of 1858, authored journal entries about flirting with local girls, staging musical performances downtown with his classmates and going out for ice cream. According to her diaries, Hazelle Allen Brooks ’34 enjoyed a lively social life that included dating, going to the movies, skipping French class and holding bull sessions with her friends. And in a letter to his brother, Cyrus Trimble, class of 1817, writes that he is a member of the Union Philosophical Society but that he cannot say much more because the literary societies “are a little on the Freemason order in the way of secrets.” Written accounts like these help to tell the story of student daily life with a great deal of color and character.

Scrapbooks also help tell the story, but they use more images, printed materials and mementos in doing so. In her bulging scrapbook, Marion Bell ’46 pasted a petition against the dean of women and other items reflecting student dissatisfaction with the college administration. In contrast, Clarence Shepherd, class of 1910, displayed in his book rivalries among the classes, with photos and clippings of scraps, smokers and class parades featured throughout.

Though these fascinating glimpses into student life are rare, alumni continue to make gifts that add to our collections. Craig Weeks ’77 recently donated a cache of letters he sent home while studying abroad in Medellín, Colombia, during the fall of 1976. Similarly, Elizabeth Bloss Breisch ’58 donated the first letter she wrote to her parents after entering the college in the fall of 1954. These latest gifts, for which I and my archives colleagues are very grateful, join my list of favorites for the way they help to enrich our understanding of student life at Dickinson through the ages.

Published October 28, 2013