By Brigette C. Kamsler
Across campuses nationwide, universities are taking an even closer look at the history of their organizations. Those who work with archives know this is nothing new, but we seem to see it more often in our daily news. Buildings and streets being renamed; monuments and statues being removed; yearbooks being scoured; all of these can pop up in our newsfeeds.
The George Washington University (GW) in Washington, D.C. is experiencing this as well. The University’s history can be traced back to 1819 when a group of Baptist ministers worked together to purchase land, petition Congress for a charter (awarded February 9, 1821), and organize a college, named Columbian College. Needless to say, much has happened in the intervening centuries.
Although I have only been at GW since August 2018, I have heard many stories of activism and awareness on campus. Almost immediately, I was able to view and experience firsthand how the work of past Special Collections professionals influenced our holdings and how faculty and students use the archives in a variety of ways. I will provide some examples of how the archives have been used for special projects and in classes, and how archives and library professionals can create specific outputs to support this work.
GW’s Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) partnered with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion beginning in 2013-2014 for a Diversity Research Fellowship. The Fellowship, funded through the Office of Diversity and Inclusion’s Innovation in Diversity and Inclusion grants, was open to any current GW student; applicants supplied a research statement that described their own areas of research interest, their GW faculty advisor’s contact information, their resume, and an optional list of collections they wanted to view. The fellows used University Archives to research topics such as non-academic staff, women, veterans, and international students at GW. The program continued in 2014-2015 and a second cohort of fellows researched religion on campus, LGBTQ movements on campus, and the 1960s Chicano movement and its impact on GW’s curriculum. Their work was shared in a variety of ways including presentations, social media and blog entries, with the majority of information incorporated into GW Past, a staff-generated set of articles, which began first as an Encyclopedia. The program specific to the Special Collections was discontinued after the second year, however the Innovation in Diversity and Inclusion grants continue more broadly (and research projects using archives are still funded).
At a push from the faculty and following the example of many other schools, in 2016 GW’s then-president, Steven Knapp, funded a one-year student research project to identify resources related to slavery, segregation, and racial justice in the University Archives. Some of this information, such as the history of slavery at the University, had been documented on GW Past.
Continuing the momentum from President Knapp’s one-year project, a new class in the department of history was created to explore GW’s history with slavery and segregation. The class, HIST2305W, was first offered in Spring 2018, and I participated in it during its second year in Spring 2019. The students were able to choose whatever topic they wanted – the main caveat being the majority of their research had to utilize archives from GW. Leah Richardson, Research and Instruction Librarian for Special Collections, created a research guide and worked with other SCRC staff to create a list of topics and potential collections; however, it was expanded upon to include the students’ interests. I had a wonderful and thought-provoking experience working with these students and it was a crash course in GW history. Topics students researched included segregation and desegregation of Greek life; segregation in Foggy Bottom (the DC neighborhood where the university is located); Lisner Auditorium and segregation; University President Cloyd Heck Marvin; and race in the Second World War.
Tom Guglielmo’s Fall 2018 class, AMST4500W: Interrogating GW, is another great example of archives being used to reflect on the school’s past. The students spent a few classes physically located in the Special Collections, working with staff and using archival collections. Each student spent the semester writing a substantial research paper on some aspect of the university, such as student activism; race, class, or gender politics; real estate holdings; cultural representation; labor struggles; and the school’s relationship to DC or Foggy Bottom. The students presented their work at a conference at the end of the semester (also look for the hashtag #interrogateGW on Twitter). While this class was on the history of GW generally, many of the same topics were explored. There has certainly been an impact on the archives staff with the influx of new classes and people researching, often on the same topics or using the same material. For more on my experiences with these challenges, please plan to attend our Section Meeting in Austin on Saturday, August 3 from 10-11:15 a.m., or watch for the shared notes from that meeting.
Student leaders at GW have also been working to move forward on renaming buildings on campus. The Student Association convened an informal task force of about ten students to conduct background research on prominent names on university buildings in 2017. Students, however, graduate and move on from the university, thus the task force had a bit of trouble keeping momentum. More recently, students want to form a committee comprised of faculty, students and officials who will research building names.[i]
Ultimately, throughout all of these topics and explorations, the archives can open up new pathways to discovery. These activities are bringing people, perhaps for the first time, into contact with these original materials. The GW Special Collections are open to the public, and we welcome everyone to conduct this research themselves.
What can archives professionals do to aid in this type of work? Leah’s Research Guide is an excellent example of being able to look in one place to identify relevant collections. We also do not have to reinvent the wheel each time – we keep track of what has been done in the past, and keep building. At GW, perhaps we could explore more topics with GW Past, and point to the specific collections that contain the information. We could also put together information for people at various levels of the organization – from students to faculty to the administration. When I come across information on the naming of a building, I make a note or take a photograph to remind myself of it just in case there is a question in the future.
The George Washington University is nearly 200 years old. The Special Collections are here to continue to document the history and events of the past and present, to lead us into the future and assist those who are working towards campus change by making that information available. The rest is up to them.
Brigette C. Kamsler is the University Archivist at The George Washington University. Originally from Gettysburg, PA, she was United States Corporate Archivist for the bank HSBC; Project Archivist at the Burke Library at Columbia University in the City of New York; and Archivist and Research Center Coordinator at the Historical Society of Frederick County, Maryland.
[i] Explore more on this topic in these articles: Sept. 12, 2017: https://www.gwhatchet.com/2017/09/11/student-committee-to-examine-problematic-history-behind-gw-building-names/; April 23, 2018: https://www.gwhatchet.com/2018/04/23/task-force-examining-problematic-building-names-stalls-eight-months-after-launch/; Oct. 29, 2019: https://www.gwhatchet.com/2018/10/29/sa-leaders-revive-charge-to-examine-controversial-building-names/.