Hip, Square, and in Between: A 1960s College Town Comes to (Digital) Life

By David McCartney

“If you remember the ’60s, you really weren’t there,” goes the familiar saying, particularly among baby boomers. Over the decades the quote has been attributed to many, including Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane, a rock band that exemplified those far-out, psychedelic times. Ms. Slick, or whoever said it first, was certainly on to something. Or maybe on something.

Poster promoting Vietnam War Moratorium, October 1969. Collection no. RG 02.0004.001 Student-Produced Flyers and Handouts Collection

But while the ’60s encompassed an emerging counter-culture – perhaps its most popular image today – the decade also embodied a wide range of experiences among students on U.S. college and university campuses. Political movements, social activities, ROTC classes, fraternity and sorority life, challenges to academic traditions, the sexual revolution, relaxing of student conduct codes, and more: these are the parts that make up the whole, a complex and remarkable historical period. And music. Don’t forget the music.

For Iowa City, home of the State University of Iowa, as it was known until 1964, highlights of this period are documented in a digital exhibit curated and produced as a collaboration among several units of the University Libraries: the University Archives, the Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio, and Preservation and Conservation Services. According to the site, the exhibit is “an immersive content discovery tool made possible by collaborators within and beyond the University of Iowa Libraries.”

1972 SDS Newsletter documenting the Herrnstein incident. Collection no. RG 02.0009.030 Emil Rinderspacher Papers

Recognizing that the 50-year anniversaries of numerous events, both local and national in scope, were approaching, beginning in 2014 I had informal discussions with a cross-section of faculty from several departments to determine what they would like to experience in such an exhibit for research and instruction purposes. Political science, history, journalism, English, military science, and other academic and service areas were contacted. I also reached out to about a dozen alumni to seek out their ideas.

Curation followed, based in part on these conversations but also based on previous reference experience. Popular topics that evolved for the site include civil rights, student life, politics and protest, the arts, the second-wave feminist movement, gay rights (the term LGBTQ did not come into popular usage until recently), and popular culture. Technical information about creation of the site is included in a colophon linked from the exhibit’s home page. The resulting exhibit, “Uptight and Laid-back: Iowa City in the Sixties,” was released in 2016, featuring content selected from over 40 collections across the University Archives. Occasionally, new content is added as additional resources are identified.

Screen shot of the landing page for the “Uptight & Laid-Back” exhibit.

While the title declares “the Sixties,” I determined the site’s timeline bookends as November 1959, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited the campus, and January 1973, following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords and what was billed at the time as “the last anti-war demonstration on campus.”

Interactive features of the site include a set of layered campus maps spanning 1958 to 1975, and a link for alumni and others to submit their own stories or images for inclusion on the site. Dynamic content includes a 1960 University of Iowa newsreel, a half-hour documentary recounting the 1967 Dow riot at the student union, the inauguration of Howard Bowen as university president in 1964, and U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren speaking at the dedication of the new law school commons in 1962.

The site also highlights digitally-reformatted audio recordings of selected poetry readings and literary ‘happenings,’ thanks to the presence of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Featured individuals include Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Margaret Walker Alexander, Jorge Luis Borges, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Some take-aways:

  • Collaboration takes time. The DSPS staff were particularly enthusiastic and supportive, as this is in keeping with the Studio’s mission to provide faculty the opportunity to access digital content pertinent to their research and instruction needs. The project also enabled University Archives to work closely with Preservation and Conservation in selecting audiovisual content that was at risk of loss. An important consideration to keep in mind from the outset is allowing the collaborating units adequate lead time and to set realistic schedules for completion, on account of workflow demands of other projects.
  • If you build it, they may not come. The feature allowing alumni to contribute content is the most disappointing outcome of the project to date. Despite a column about it in the our alumni magazine (I write a quarterly column, “Old Gold,” for the print edition as well as electronic editions 10 times/year via the university’s newsfeed and social media) and news releases via the university’s strategic communication office, there have been only three submissions to date. The alumni relations office and the library have received many positive comments about the site but, alas, few submissions. With editor approval I would like to write a reminder piece soon, as 50-year anniversary event dates continue in the time ahead and to confer with the alumni relations office about reaching out to specific affinity groups to inform them of this option.
  • Collecting efforts are still necessary. Our holdings are generally strong in this area, and my predecessor Earl Rogers collected much ephemera from this period soon after he began work here in 1970. However, the archives still has inadequate documentation of the experiences of African-American, LGBTQ, and other groups of students of this time. Again, I need to make the time to work with alumni relations for specific and targeted outreach.

To learn more about the site and my experiences, please plan to attend the College and University Archives Section Meeting in Austin on Saturday, August 3 from 10-11:15 a.m., or watch for the shared notes from that meeting.

I didn’t enter college until fall 1974, so I have no memory of the ‘60s in the way that Grace Slick (or whoever) meant. Nevertheless, I hope that “Uptight and Laid-back…” continues to serve as a useful and entertaining resource. You dig?

David McCartney, C.A., is the University of Iowa archivist, a position he has held since 2001. He has master’s degrees in history and library science, both from the University of Maryland at College Park, and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is immediate past president of the Midwest Archives Conference.


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