Seeking Input: How Should the Section Act Upon a Theme of Student Workers in the Archives?

By Rebecca Goldman

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A student in the archives. Image courtesy Georgia State University Library.

At our last meeting, the College and University Archives Section decided to focus on the theme of student workers for 2017-2018. We’re in the process of coming up with new projects for this year and an agenda for our in-person meeting at the 2018 SAA conference in D.C.

We chose this theme for a couple of reasons. It expands on my personal interest in new professionals in archives. Our student workers are all future new professionals–and most of them won’t stay in the archives field after they graduate. How can archival work as an undergraduate help prepare them for other careers? We also hoped that this topic would be relevant to academic archives in all environments, not just large research universities or well-funded institutions. Repositories of all sizes rely on student workers for a variety of archival tasks. We have a lot to learn from each other.

Before our next Steering Committee meeting on February 1, we welcome your ideas and feedback. If you’re a current or former archives student worker, we especially hope to hear from you!

Please join in the discussion in one of the following ways:

  • Comment on this post
  • Reply to the discussion on the C&UA listserv
  • Email the Steering Committee
  • Email me directly

To get you started, here are some focusing questions, and some feedback that we received from members last year when we proposed our student worker theme:

Questions

  • What knowledge can college and university archivists share with each other related to student workers?
  • What actions can we take as a section to benefit our home institutions and our student workers?
  • What resources, within and beyond the archives profession, should we be aware of?
  • What issues should we consider as we move forward?
  • How can we center student workers in this conversation, and highlight their accomplishments, without asking them for unpaid labor?
  • How can we use our SAA meeting time to move our work forward?

Feedback

  1. Address issues of student labor and economic justice in the context of the corporate university.
  2. I especially like the idea about “how archival work can help prepare students for careers outside of archives”. I find the whole discussion about Archival Literacy Competencies and Teaching with Primary Sources in SAA very useful, not only for history students but for our student workers too. In addition, I hope we will be able to have some feedback on the problems that might come up with regard to archival policies (issue of confidentiality, excessive use of social media while at work, etc.).
  3. I would love to share with many of my colleagues just what it is that archives students do across the spectrum of universities and colleges (each time I mention my experience from 10+ years ago, I think they think it is just me and not an experience shared by many students in archives across the years).
  4. I think it’s really important to address the gig economy and its implications for work in this field.
    Two issues leap immediately to mind:

    1. The practice of using underpaid or volunteer workers, as well as interns and library assistants — and, of course, student workers — as substitutes for professional archivists
    2. The increasing “adjunctification” of the archival profession that the next generation of archivists will be facing, and that this generation is already enduring, where archivists live (and often move) from gig to gig, and where all too often temporary/short-term jobs translate not into permanent jobs after one has “paid one’s dues,” but rather into, at best, a string of renewals. There are so many problems with this model, not least among them the inhibition of people’s chances to request decent pay and raises or to build careers. Students should be well aware of what they may be getting into, because I don’t think archives education programs stress anywhere near enough how many people are unable to find decent, long-term professional jobs …
  5. Have people successfully (or unsuccessfully) involved students in a “snazzy” (untraditional) side of archives; i.e. working on cool exhibits (interactive); working on DH or game-based learning programs or apps, etc.; outreach to communities; programming?  Things that make you go “wow!”  How about in lone arranger settings?
  6. As a current Student Assistant working in special collections/archives, I appreciate the Steering Committee’s focus this year. All of the ideas are great and would be relevant to the work I’m doing now and the questions I encounter. I especially like the idea of the Campus Case Studies because I’m sure we’re all doing some fascinating work. One topic that may be of interest is how student assistants can help encourage fellow students to utilize the archive or special collection. It seems in my institution, at least, the Special Collections department is one of the best kept secrets in the library. It does, however, have a lot of information that could be useful to student researchers. As peers, I think we have a unique opportunity to generate interest in our collections among students.

Rebecca Goldman is the College Archivist at Wellesley College. She holds a MSLIS from Drexel University and a BA in linguistics from Swarthmore College. She currently serves as chair of the College and University Archives Section.

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Digitizing Union College’s Alumni Files: Scanning and Student Engagement

By India Spartz

As you can imagine, when an undergraduate liberal arts institution like Union College is more than 200 years old, it generates and receives an astonishing amount of information about its alumni: newspaper clippings, notes, letters, and ephemera related to centuries of graduates.

In an attempt to maintain active relationships with its alumni, Union’s College Relations department established a series of alumni files. Several decades ago, files dating from 1795 to 1929 were transferred to the Schaffer Library’s Special Collections and Archives department for research purposes and safekeeping (the materials are currently stored in a secured climate controlled environment).

The files are a rich and valuable resource for documenting the history of Union College, and Special Collections receives frequent requests from students, faculty, and researchers who seek information pertaining to its alumni.

When I arrived as head of Special Collections & Archives in 2014, the alumni files were stored on shelves in the library’s basement. This arrangement meant that student workers and library staff descended three flights of stairs to pull files. Aside from the amount of time it took to retrieve and return the files, frequent handling put the materials at risk for damage. I immediately recognized the need to relocate the alumni files into the Special Collections & Archives department and began developing a way to scan the contents of each folder for long term preservation and access.

Union College is like most small undergraduate liberal arts institutions: we currently lack a sophisticated digital lab and have limited resources for outsourcing large digital scanning projects. So I determined that the best way to tackle scanning hundreds of alumni files would be to utilize student workers. In 2015, through a generous bequest, the library acquired a Zeutschel OS12002 overhead scanner. The Zeutschel makes it possible to customize scanning settings, which allowed us to streamline the digitization process. This feature also allows students to be quickly trained to scan the alumni files using basic Photoshop commands.

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Explanation of and example of file naming structure employed throughout the project.

In order to capture the necessary metadata, Special Collections & Archives collaborated with the Technical Services department to create protocols for assigning numbers for each item within a folder. The metadata naming schema uses the surname and first initial of the alum (as shown in image at right).

Training
The Technical Services department trains students on how to use the Zeutschel. The Special Collections & Archives staff also train students on handling and handwriting the metadata (using a #2 pencil) on each document. More experienced students have also acted as trainers by teaching each other how to scan and code the documents. So far, the students have successfully scanned folders dating from 1795 to 1866.

Challenges

  • It turns out that the more recent folders require additional time to complete, as they contain more information. This has slowed the pace of scanning considerably.
  • As students graduate, it’s imperative that the Special Collections & Archives department hire new student workers each year and provide training in order to continue the project.
  • Folders post-1900 are likely to contain confidential information since the College Relations department began sending questionnaires to alumni. These questionnaires requested information about their personal lives (names and birthdates of children, home addresses, etc.). Therefore, it may be necessary to restrict post-1900 alumni files because of confidentiality concerns.
  • As of this writing, scanned alumni files are only accessible via an in-house server. Special Collections & Archives staff are authorized to reference these files for researchers. Patrons may receive copies of the digitized files upon request. The Schaffer Library recently launched an institutional repository called Union Digital Works. This platform will likely serve as the online access point for digitized alumni files. Once online, researchers will have full access to the pre-1900 alumni files via the internet.

 

Student engagement
While the coding and scanning process can be tedious, students have surprisingly embraced these tasks. More than once, they have commented that coding and digitizing the documents provides an opportunity to listen to music on their headphones, relax, and escape their rigorous schedules.

Anouk, a senior majoring in environmental sciences, has worked on the project for two years. I asked her what she likes about coding and scanning the documents. She responded that she felt a sense of ownership of the project and commented that the project has taught her a great deal about the history of Union College and the importance of preserving historical documents for the future.

Quality assurance (QA)
The student work is overseen and checked by an Archives Assistant. This includes retrieving the saved digital files and spot checking everyone tenth one. Should a digital file need to be corrected or modified, the Archives Assistant consults with the student to fix the problem.  Once QA is complete, the finished digital files are stored on a secured “Library dark archive” or L: drive while access copies are made available to authorized staff via the “Library preservation” or M: drive.

Preserving the originals
After the folders are scanned and quality assurance is complete, they are filed in acid-free boxes for long-term storage. At the beginning of the project, we decided to keep the original manilla folders rather than re-house the documents into acid-free folders due to time and funding constraints.

Timeline and follow up
Because scanning the alumni files is an in-house project, there is no set timeline for completion. However, the department dedicates several students each year to scan the files. The post-1929 alumni files continue to be stored at College Relations. As this phase of the scanning project moves toward completion, efforts will be made to reach out and acquire the more recent alumni files for scanning and long-term storage.

Conclusion
While this project not only preserves the alumni files, it has also made it possible to eventually make the alumni files virtually accessible to researchers worldwide. By incorporating student workers into the process, the project has been able to move forward because of their enthusiasm and dedication. The students have also embraced the opportunity to work with historical documents and learn about Union College’s unique history while acquiring new technical skills that will serve them in the future.


India Spartz is the Head of Special Collections and Archives at Union College in Schenectady, NY. She holds an B.A. from the University of Alaska (her home state), MLIS from UC Berkeley, and M.A. in Museum Studies from the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. She’s a member of the Academy of Certified Archivists and serves on SAA’s College & University Archives Steering Committee.

Teaching with Primary Sources: The Charlotte Lederer Story

By Carrie Schwier

This blog post is drawn from one case study shared during a talk given at the 2017 SAA annual conference during Session 106 Active Learning for Archival Institutions: From Theory to Practice. Coincidently, as it relates to immigration it also ties in nicely to the last post Meet Your Vice-Chair: Ellen Engseth.

While I’ve been a full-time staff member of the IU Archives for almost 10 years now, in the summer of 2015 I moved into the new position of Outreach and Public Services Archivist and was tasked with developing our instruction program. This year our program served over 1,100 students in 70 separate sessions in 21 departments.

Like most archivists, I received no formal training on instruction during library school. Admittedly, looking back at my very early forays in instruction around 2011 I am a little embarrassed. These were often very passive sessions for the students, with me lecturing and leaving them little opportunity to interact with our collections. Over the years my teaching has been heavily influenced by a couple of professional development opportunities including the 2012 Midwest Archives Conference Symposium – Engaging Students and Teachers: Integrating Primary Sources in Curricula (in particular a session on Primary Sources in the College Classroom with Peter Carini, Dartmouth College), and in 2016 the first Librarians Active Learning Institute for Archives and Special Collections (LALI-ASC) at Dartmouth College. Both emphasized the importance of integrating active-learning techniques into the classroom, and the power that a strong story can have as our brains are built to process information as narrative. Furthermore, learning is enhanced when that story is authentic and relatable to the learners’ life.

COLL-S103 – Becoming “American”: Immigration and American Literature
Immediately following my return from LALI-ASC, a relatively new faculty member who was teaching an Intensive Freshman Seminar (IFS) course at Indiana University contacted me.  IFS classes are two-week 3-credit classes intended to introduce “freshman to the rigors of college life” two weeks prior to the start of fall semester. IFS classes typically enroll about 20 students. While planning the instruction session the professor noted that he anticipated the course would attract a large percentage of international students, and this may be their first time in the United States. Ultimately, we choose to target three learning objectives from the ACRL RBMS – SAA Joint Task Forces – Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy:

  • that students understand that they can “draw on primary sources to generate and refine research questions.” (I. Conceptualize; C.)
  • that students “recognize and understand the policies and procedures that affect access to primary sources” specifically in regards to handling and necessity for usage in a secure reading room (II. Find and Access; E. )
  • that students can “identify and communicate information found in primary sources, including summarizing the content of the source and identifying and reporting key components such as how it was created, by whom, when, and what it is.” (III. Read, Understand, Summarize; B.)

 

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Page 1 of letter used in classroom discussion. Image courtesy the author.

Using a flipped classroom model to free up in-class time at the archives for active-learning activities, prior to their visit to the IU Archives the students were assigned to read this letter written in September 1940, by then IU student Charlotte (Lotte) Lederer, a Viennese Jewish refugee to the IU President and Board of Trustees. In the letter, she thanks the Trustees for supporting her studies, talks about her upbringing and about how her parents wanted an education for her equal to that of her brother, the start of the war, and her father’s support of the ill-fated Austrian government. She also goes on to mention that she recently applied for her first citizenship papers and hopes to always live in Indiana. Today’s readers are left with a LOT of hanging questions, which are perfect for demonstrating the above learning objectives. Prior to class, the students are simply asked to come prepared with a list of questions they have about the letter.

During their 90-minute session at the archives, as a group we first compile a list of questions: Did she graduate? Was she Jewish? What happened to her family? Based upon inflation, what would the cost of tuition be compared to that of today? Etc. I use this letter with multiple classes, and based upon their backgrounds the students ask different things and always add questions that I have yet to consider. I use this as an opportunity to share with students the number of directions that a single primary source can take them.

The students are then divided into 6 groups for a think-pair-share activity featuring other documents that fill in details of Ms. Lederer’s life and answer some of the questions they have generated. Included are a New York passenger ship log found through Ancestry.com, a dormitory scrapbook, newspaper clippings about a student refugee committee on campus, a wedding announcement found in the President’s office records, and a letter to the Alumni Association written while she was working as a classification analyst at the Pentagon. Students are then asked to fill out a simple worksheet answering questions such as What is it? When was it made? Where was it made? Who made it and why? What part of Lotte’s story does your item fill in? And does it raise any new questions? Then as a group, I ask the students to report back in a certain order on their documents so as to continue the suspense of the narrative for a while longer.

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Students examine a scrapbook during an archives session. Image courtesy the author.

For the second half of the session, in order to reinforce these new skills I pull out another group of items from our collection that are completely unrelated to the Lederer story. For example, oral history interviews from Indiana immigrant communities, records from the Cosmopolitan Club, an early student group formed to support international students, examples of Polish ethnic jokes from the Folklore Institute student papers, and photos and notebooks from our Charles Cushman collection of a Polish Independence Day parade in Chicago in the 1940s. Again in pairs the students work through a similar set of questions as with the Lederer activity (What is it? Who made it? And finally – what’s one question that you have?). The students then come back together as a group to share their findings with their classmates. I also remind them that now they have each generated a research question that they could further develop into a project.

Offered again this fall, a second iteration of this course was expanded into a full sixteen-week course. With each, the professor shared that many of the students expressed that the Charlotte Lederer activity really resonated with them, in particular because she was a college student at Indiana University such as themselves. There is something quite powerful when you can use historical documents which refer to places and spaces intimately familiar to students.

To conclude, I will admit that it took a good amount of time (multiple hours) to develop this activity, most of the time going towards doing the research to find the pieces of Charlotte’s story that were present in our collection. This process actually proves helpful during the instruction session however, as I can share with the students my own research hurdles in an authentic way.

Furthermore, I certainly can’t create a new exercise like this for every instruction session that I teach. This one exercise is quite adaptable for a range of learning objectives and subjects. I use this letter for classes in the History department, Gender Studies, and even recently a School of Education Social Studies for Elementary Schools class. The key is finding an engaging document, which raises a TON of questions. Perhaps it relates to a local mystery, or scandal, or simply something that will draw an emotional response – every archive has that!

Are you wondering how to find engaging documents for use in instruction? Just keep an eye out for ideas while providing reference services, processing new collections, or looking for social media content. My position involves doing a ton of reference so when I run across something interesting that makes me ask questions, I make a quick photocopy and add it to my file of instruction ideas.

If you would like to know more about Charlotte Lederer’s story, see this post at the IU Archives’ Blogging Hoosier History.


Carrie Schwier is the Outreach and Public Services Archivist at the Indiana University Archives. In addition to instruction, she also manages public services, oversees exhibits and outreach initiatives, and supervises lots of graduate students. She holds an M.A. in Art History and M.L.S. with Archives Specialization from Indiana University, and a B.A. from Hanover College.

Meet Your Vice-Chair: Ellen Engseth

This post is the third in a series highlighting our recently-elected section leadership.

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Ellen Engseth, Curator, Immigration History Research Center and Head of the Migration and Social Services Collections, University of Minnesota Libraries.

Ellen Engseth is Curator, Immigration History Research Center Archives and Head of the Migration and Social Services Collections within Archives and Special Collections at the University of Minnesota Libraries. The Migration and Social Services Collections are four distinct archives with complementary collections, staff expertise, and patron base. Archives and Special Collections is a department of the University Libraries, with 15 distinct yet collaborative collecting areas, that together create one of the largest archives on an academic campus in the U.S. Previously, she worked as an archivist at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, at North Park University, and at University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign.

Why or how did you find your way to becoming an archivist?
After a college degree in history, I thought I’d go on to museum work, and I spent some time gaining volunteer and work experience in the heritage sector. I was fortunate to be able to volunteer at the Public Record Office in Kew, England, now the National Archives (UK). I don’t believe I’d ever been in an archive before that point. These colleagues sat me down in front of some 19th century copyright registration ledgers, to look for something in particular, and I was hooked on two things: the information source in its original form (with which I had little experience), and the continuing value and exciting research options these sources provide to us. I did some research and learned of the option to concentrate on archival administration, and attended that program at University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.

Can you share a success you have had in your repository of late?
This past year, we’ve had a good experience publishing our sources through a digital academic publisher. I saw this opportunity as one to be both entrepreneurial and contributory; through this project, we’ve increased our digital assets (55,000 pages and 20 hours of transcribed oral history recordings) while improving access of our sources to users we would otherwise not reach. We also had a great time working with campus colleagues, the James Ford Bell Library, and the publishers, building stronger campus relationships, and learning a lot.

What project are you most excited about in your archives?
Finding our next colleague! We have an assistant archivist position available soon, and I really enjoy the process of talking with candidates, finding a good match, and then onboarding and welcoming that new colleague.

As a curator at the Immigration History Research Center Archives, what advice might you give college and university archivists who are considering documenting immigrants on their campus (or the surrounding community)?
This is something I think a lot about, and in the current political and social climates, others are engaged, too. This increase in activity is an opportunity for us to be part of the conversations, learn more about the realities of those on our campuses, and utilize those traditional areas where we often connect with others, such as student groups or in teaching. In our case, at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, a newly-formed Immigration Response Team confirmed that after the presidential proclamation, over 150 international students and scholars are from the eight listed countries, and there are hundreds more faculty, staff, and students with connections to those countries. Did your campus respond in some official capacity? Are more classes discussing immigration, and do you have sources to share with them? Are student groups active and engaged? If so, they are likely cognizant of the historical importance of this moment. Finally, it’s a prime opportunity to practice cultural competence, because the lived realities of recent im/migrants and new Americans on our campuses will be different from others.’ For example, one thing I am now sensitive to is my own use, as an archivist, of the word “document” (and its variants such as documentation and documentary). For many non-archivists, this word carries issues or meanings much stronger than any related to archival activity. In honor of this, I increasingly choose other words, or if I do use “document,” I explain my own usage and set it in the archival context.

You recently received an AASLH Leadership in History Award for your exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the IHRCA. What are your top tips for creating an engaging exhibit in a college and university setting?

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Map created by visitors to illustrate migration journeys. Image courtesy the author.

In this exhibit my colleagues and I worked to create an impactful, energetic exhibit space. We hoped that the visitors would engage with the general topic of im/migration, and then, bring that engagement to the archival material on exhibit and to the topic of our archives. So we utilized bright colors, everyday recognizable items such as suitcases and (traveling) shoes, and provided a large world map where we asked visitors to participate in the exhibit by illustrating any migration journey by simply placing a string onto it. Visitors thus gradually and collectively created an exhibit piece that visualized global migration through time. Students seemed to really enjoy this easy way to participate. We also asked folks to leave their comments — and students did, which is great! Finally, we actively welcomed people via a video, a formal event/invitation, personal outreach to teachers, students and community members, and encouraged visitors to discuss their visit on social media.

 

How have you balanced the demands of the work place with your professional involvement in SAA and elsewhere?
Time or energy for volunteer work service and professional activity can be a struggle for many of us, I know. Yet this kind of work is a great benefit; some people I know in other work environments don’t get such opportunity, and I find that I typically receive as much as I give. I balance by being strategic, choosing to do that which I feel will truly be of use. Also, my experience is that this kind of activity will ebb and flow, depending on opportunity, our other life demands, support from work places, and similar. This will provide some natural balance, as well.

As Vice-Chair and Chair-Elect, what are your priorities for the section for the next two years?
I’d like to maximize the good work of this year’s initiative led by current Chair Rebecca Goldman (details to be announced soon!) by continuing with any work in process. And I am always interested in connecting our section work with SAA’s Goals and Strategies or with other sections, and thus share our campus-based experiences with the wider profession where it can be useful. Finally, as someone with my eye on the international, I will be considering confluences or connections with the Section on University Archives of the International Council on Archives. (Some of you may be interested to know that their 2018 conference will be held in Salamanca, Spain on the topic of “Historical Records in University Archives, a Value Added.”)

I’d love to hear from any of you interested in these areas or others, and work with you on them. Thank you!

Documenting Student Activities and Activism on Campus: Bringing Activist Alumni into the Fold

By Bryan Whitledge

AAblog-04CMU Stop Hate Walkout, November 15, 2016. Image courtesy of Steve Jessmore, Central Michigan University.

Activism is nothing new among the students on college campuses. As the cycle goes at colleges and universities, those activists will hopefully become degree-holding alumni. With this constant turnover, one hurdle that pops up for archivists is how to document campus activism as people leave for the next chapter in their lives. In the attempt to capture today’s activist movements, there are some benefits to be had by working with other campus activists, even decades after they left the institution. At Central Michigan University (CMU), a fruitful relationship with alumni who participated in a variety of groups and movements during the Vietnam War-era not only helped the archives round out the information about that time of activism at CMU, but has been of use to build a relationship with today’s activist students.

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Freedom Hall at Central Michigan University, ca. May 6, 1970. Image courtesy of the Clarke Historical Library.

In 2016, some members of the robust activist community that existed in and around Central Michigan University in the late 1960s and early 1970s decided to get together in what they deemed a “No-Class Reunion.” This was perfect opportunity for the Clarke Historical Library to get involved. While the Clarke has relatively complete holdings of “official” records from that era, documents from the activist movement are far from complete. This No-Class Reunion gave the archivists a chance to speak to the publishers of the underground papers, the organizers of the marches, and those who pushed through the doors to occupy the ROTC building and deem it Freedom Hall.

 

Out of the 180 or so “No-Classers,” about 20 took the Clarke up on the offer to visit the archives. These alumni were impressed and excited to see the vast amount of materials already collected about their activism, and they were delighted to think of how they could contribute more to the holdings. Some of them also agreed to participate in a recorded discussion about their experiences, which would be added to the historical documents.

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“No-Class Reunion” participants, 2016. Image courtesy of the Clarke Historical Library.

Before turning this relationship into a positive tool for connecting with current activist students, staff at the Clarke learned some interesting facts about the activist alumni that could be true beyond the Mount Pleasant campus. First, the No-Classers did not have much contact with the university in the traditional ways other alumni do. This could possibly be explained though their student life experiences, which did not include what are normally deemed traditional activities like Greek life, athletics, clubs, and such. Regardless, the No-Classers did not arrange the event with the Alumni Association, but they did reach out to the archives. It seems that the archives and, more likely, the chance for activists to document the history of the change-making in which they were involved, may be the best link a University has with activist students.

The second bit of information learned from the No-Class Reunion is about building trust and forming bonds between activists and an official university entity, like the archives. For the No Class-ers, the trust was built easily, most likely because their age and geographic distribution meant there were few to no negative consequences to be had for contributing to the historic record. On the one hand, time and distance make trust-building come easy. On the other, the strong bonds formed with the No-Class-ers gave the archives credibility with some current activist students. The Clarke has since been working with a few very active students to add historic context to their documentary project exploring activism at CMU.

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Central Michigan University students during an anti-Vietnam War Rally, ca. 1969. Image courtesy of the Clarke Historical Library.

In an effort to have as complete a record of campus activism as possible, the Clarke found that working with alumni from decades passed payed off. The benefits were not only found in adding to the historical record and helping forge bonds with today’s activists. There were also lessons learned including the fact that the opportunity to document change-making could make the archives the best point of contact activist students will have with institution as alumni. Even so, it may take time – nearly five decades for the No-Class-ers – before activist alumni are ready to share their stories and part with their records.


Bryan Whitledge is the Archivist for University Digital Records at Central Michigan University. During his time at the Clarke Historical Library, he has worked in multiple reference, access, and outreach capacities.

Exhibiting in the Wake of Tragedy: an Isla Vista Remembrance

By Julia Larson

Putting together exhibits of archival and library material can be fun and a good learning experience for all involved. But what if the topic of the exhibit is tragedy? How do you exhibit materials that affected every member of a campus community? What can you do as staff and faculty to help those who have been affected the most, the students? By working with students, and letting them have a voice in choosing materials and designing some of the exhibition rooms, we tried to create a space for healing and promote compassion.

On May 23, 2014, a young man killed six University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) students and injured 14 others. In the wake of the tragedy, spontaneous memorials sprung up in the seaside college town of Isla Vista, where the rampage took place. A UCSB graduate student, Melissa Barthelemy, was approached by undergraduates who asked her to find a way to save the items so that they would not be discarded. She began taking care of the materials in situ (sleeving paper cards, working with the property managers on removal of dead flowers, leaving notebooks for students and community members to write their thoughts and prayers). Barthelemy, a graduate student in history, then began working with librarians Rebecca Metzger and Annie Platoff to form a committee to deal with the memorial items and work with the Library’s Special Research Collections Department to collect and archive the materials. Their Ad hoc Memorial Preservation Committee worked closely with the university administration and Student Affairs Division, as well as the History Department and property owners to collect and preserve cards, letters, candles, and other ephemera. Barthelemy became the project manager for the entire project, and Platoff was the curator of the collection. They worked with the Public History Department to have undergraduate student interns earn credits to organize and scan hundreds of cards and notes during the fall 2014 quarter. By winter quarter 2015, a plan to exhibit the materials for the one-year anniversary had been decided upon and a history class was offered as an opportunity for students to get hands-on experience handling archive and exhibition materials. The problem was location.

In 2015, the UCSB Library was nearing the final stretch of a 3 year, $80 million renovation and addition, and space was tight in the portions of the library that were not under construction. With so many students affected by the tragedy, the normal library exhibit spaces would not work. The committee did not want students who see the library as a safe and quiet space to study to encounter materials from the tragedy in a hallway exhibit or in the normal Special Collections exhibit areas. The library needed a space that was on campus, public enough to encourage visitation, but private enough for students and family members to visit and grieve in peace. The only space that fit the criteria was overflow office space, where a few library departments had moved temporarily during construction. It was a World War II-era gymnasium building, a holdover from when UCSB was a Marine Air Base, halfway between the History Department and the library, near the center of campus. It consisted of nearly 9000 square feet of office space, with a maze of windowless rooms, a mix of large rooms with long blank walls and smaller rooms, perfect for the university counselors to talk to visitors privately, if needed. The only catch was that library staff were not moving out of their offices until April 30, and the exhibit was to open on May 20, just in time for the one-year anniversary memorial.

A history class, taught by Professors Ann Plane and Randy Bergstrom, divided students up into two main groups: students working on the exhibit, and students working on processing the collection for the archive. Annie Platoff supervised the students processing the items (close to 50 cubic feet, and a couple thousand items) into the collection so that they could be put on display in the exhibit. Melissa Barthelemy supervised the students in the exhibit planning, design, and construction. She recruited me (since I am her spouse) to be the Exhibit Installation Coordinator and work with the students on the layout and construction of the exhibit, since I had worked at a number of museums in the past, though at the time I was working at the UCSB Library. Since this was in addition to my full-time job, I worked with a group of students and volunteers every evening from 7 p.m. until midnight most days during May to construct the exhibit, entitled We Remember Them: Acts of Love and Compassion in Isla Vista.

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We Remember Them room. Photo by Tony Mastres; courtesy UCSB Library.

Many in-kind donations of time and resources flowed in—the UCSB Art Museum donated the use of 16 exhibit cases, the Library donated the use of a large video monitor to display the digital images of the memorial sites, Facilities donated their custodial services staff to clean the exhibit space, Associated Students donated materials to be put on display, Office of Student Life organized volunteers to help staff the exhibit, and Counseling Services brought in counselors for emotional support. And even the students in the class brought their friends and partners along to help with the exhibit installation. A student in the class who was an art major created the image for the publicity materials, a recent graduate who had taken many photos of the spontaneous memorial sites became the project photographer, a graduate student in psychology became the exhibit supervisor, and a few students worked both on processing the collection and installing the exhibit—this gave them the opportunity to pick out the items that would work best for each exhibit case.

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Floor plan of exhibition rooms with suggested path. Image courtesy of Melissa Barthelemy.

The exhibit space was defined as seven interconnected rooms, with auxiliary space left over for a volunteer kitchen, office, exhibit prep room, and two small rooms designated as ‘counseling rooms’ for the counseling staff to use. Long hallways extended around the center rooms, which provided space for the large chalkboards from a spontaneous memorial site (with messages written by community members and sealed for preservation), and new cork boards for visitors to hang notes and messages on. The first portion of the exhibit honored the lives of the victims, and contained biographies approved by their family members. An exhibit case showed items left at the memorial sites that had specific messages for each victim. The next two rooms showed the outpouring of support and condolence materials from the sites of spontaneous memorials. Exhibit cases highlighted each of the spontaneous memorial sites at four of the sites of violence, with cards, mementos, origami cranes, candles, and graduation leis. Photos of the memorial service held in the UCSB stadium which was attended by 23,000 people, a photo panorama of the paddle out (1000 surfers on a calm ocean), the memorial candlelight vigil, and a video message of condolence from Vice President Joseph Biden filled the next rooms. One room also highlighted how those affected had channeled their energy into gun reform, mental health awareness, and a feminist response to violence.  Two more rooms showed how the community has come together, with a Memorial Garden, scholarships in the name of each victim, messages of support for the first responders, and a space for visitors to write their own thoughts in comment books. We chose digital photographs from student photographers, local and university newspapers, and a few images from international news sources for display in the exhibit. A local printing business worked a few late nights as we sent them high resolution images for them to print onto 16×20 foam core, with another piece of foam core attached to the back, so that all we had to do was put nail into the wall and hang the photos from the strip of foam. Another local frame shop devised plexi-glass holders for some of the cards and hand-colored paper hearts from local school children, which allowed for quick, easy, and cost-effective display. The fragile and simple display of materials in frameless plexi emphasized the spontaneous nature of the materials on display. As a flexible overflow space, most of the walls were fairly sturdy drywall, however others were plastic, and still others were cubicle walls that hid various electrical or plumbing features in certain rooms. Two rooms had very old track lighting, but most were the standard office fluorescent lights; some rooms had standard office carpet, but two other rooms and the hallways had the bare, original 1942 basketball floor.

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Come Together/ Continuing events room. Photo by Tony Mastres; courtesy UCSB Library.

A room apart from the main flow of the exhibit was the Reflection Room—it was largely designed by the students and featured comfortable couches, mood lighting, colorful posters, and was designed as a place for them to ‘chill’ and relax. It became the place where families and friends of the victims could sit and talk and grieve together. In total, there was about 6000 square feet of exhibition space, spanning nine rooms. Since the exhibit was dependent upon students and volunteers for staffing, we planned to be open only five hours each day for four weeks, ending just after graduation in late June. After faculty, students with their parents, staff, and even the Chancellor visited the exhibit over graduation weekend, the exhibit was extended another six weeks. In total, over 1800 visitors came through the exhibit, some only once, and some returned multiple times.

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Reflection Room. Photo by Tony Mastres; courtesy of UCSB Library.

There are a few takeaways from this experience. Not all communities grieve in the same way after events like this. While the tragedy did not take place on campus, it was just two blocks away – in the center of the Isla Vista community, where the students go to hang out, eat, work, and where most of them live, in one of the most densely populated unincorporated areas in the western U.S. The students working on the exhibit wanted to reclaim that seaside town through the Reflection Room, they needed to remind themselves of the Isla Vista before the tragedy. And the staff and faculty needed to remind themselves that we are all one community, both town and gown. The effort to get all of the various departments and units to work together and contribute to this exhibit is not to be underestimated; bureaucracy does not disappear, but can sometimes be ignored if necessary.  In the end, the success of the exhibit was not based on numbers of visitors, or length of time it was open. But it was in the ability of the students to come together and create something out of tragedy, to find ways to grieve collectively, and heal as a community.


Julia Larson is the Reference Archivist for the Architecture and Design Collection at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In 2015, she was working at the UCSB Library when she was asked to be the Exhibit Installation Coordinator for the We Remember Them: Acts of Love and Compassion in Isla Vista memorial exhibit. She is currently working on an upcoming exhibit, UCSB Campus Architecture: Design and Social Change, which opens in January 2018.