Inside the Archives: The value of the 'old stuff'

With the recent rediscovery of the papyri in Orlando W. Qualley's collection, many people have been asking for more information about the Luther College Archives. In short, the Archives is a treasure trove of documents, photographs, sound and movie recordings, artifacts, digital files and so much more, that together tell the story of how Luther has become the place it is today. 

Most of the materials in our collection are related to the functions of the college, such as the presidential papers, building files, committee records, Board of Regents dockets and resolutions, meeting minutes, special event programs and recordings, service projects and past issues of Luther publications. These records are donated to the Archives from various departments and offices on campus and are frequently used by students, faculty and staff to support anniversary celebrations, write Chips articles, and research biographical information on important people in Luther's history.

The rest of the Archives comprise special collections of faculty and friends of the college. These manuscript collections are often donated by retired faculty, friends of the college or family members of historic Luther College legacy families, such as the Korens, the family who originally purchased the land on which Luther sits. It is in these collections that many of our most exciting things can be found, such as Qualley's papyri.

Other notable artifacts and materials include hundreds of handwritten war letters from servicemen in the Civil War, World War I, and World War II; extensive experimental chemistry research data created by professor Adrian Docken who taught from 1942-79; first drafts and unpublished poetry by famed poet Joseph Langland; passports and personal notes by world-renown potter Marguerite Wildenhain; and Elisabeth Koren's "America Letters," which document her first 14 years in the United States. Materials like these are processed into the collection, rehoused in archival-quality, acid-free folders and boxes, labeled, described, cataloged, and then placed in the Archives' secure space in a locked and temperature-controlled area of Preus Library.

Archives 5

These are just a few of the hidden treasures that are everywhere you look in an archives. In 2009, former college archivist Rachel Vagts and Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum registrar Jennifer Kovarik recognized the need to increase the discoverability of the Archives and in 2010, they were awarded grant funding to create an online catalog of all of the materials in their collections. 

Over the following two years, the full-time project resulted in the creation of 1,100 collection-level finding aids that allow keyword searching in the Luther College Archives and Vesterheim Archives. While the project formally ended in 2012, work continues to enhance the descriptions and increase the chance of people finding our materials out on the open web (e.g., Google or Bing search results). You can search Nordic, the Archives' digital catalog by visiting http://nordic.luther.edu.

Why do we do all of this?

It's important to realize that while my mission in life is to select, preserve and make available the archival materials, the real value comes when people actually use them. 

In this era of "google and get," the art of researching has radically changed. Working with archival materials is a unique opportunity for people to step through time—not only with regard to accessing historic materials, but to get a taste for the more traditional ways of research and critical thinking. This includes slowly paging through one piece at a time and analyzing materials individually that are often in boxes with hundreds of other items. When researchers slow down and actually read every letter or memo, it naturally creates an environment friendly to rediscovery. Archives 2 

Providing online access to our materials will hopefully encourage more people to begin looking through the collections that we hold. I hope that more faculty will consider incorporating archival research within their curriculum, as our collections truly are interdisciplinary. The more the Archives can be used in the classroom or in research, the more valuable they become. Please consider stopping by the Archives reading room or sending me an email. We would love to talk more about what we do, how we do it, and why we love it.  

Sasha GriffinSasha Griffin is the digital archivist at Luther College and is also filling the recently vacated college archivist role. She holds a master’s degree in library and information science from Kent State University and a bachelor's degree in history from Capital University. Griffin has worked at Luther since 2010, coming most recently from The Ohio State University Byrd Polar Research Center Archival Program.

{ Return to Ideas and Creations for more posts. }

Comments

  • March 5 2014 at 10:27 am
    Bruce Bruemmer

    Providing online access to our materials will hopefully encourage more people to begin looking through the collections that we hold. I hope that more faculty will consider incorporating archival research within their curriculum, as our collections truly are interdisciplinary. The more the Archives can be used in the classroom or in research, the more valuable they become.

    I would ramp up the argument.  Stop "hoping" and using passive voice in the above and communicate the essential part that archives play in true research.  Professors are derelict if they allow students to graduate without research skills that are best practiced in the archives.

    And personal issue -- "treasure trove" is like fingernails on a chalkboard. Treasure implies hidden and a state that is fallow (and every newspaper article about archives uses that phrase for some reason). By having a digital archivist, you are making the statement that important resources are a click away.  Don't "consider" stopping by the archives; you're crazy if you don't.

  • March 5 2014 at 4:07 pm
    Sasha Griffin
    Bruce, thanks so much for your tips. I agree that archives provide an essential opportunity for undergraduates to flex their research skills and Luther College is fortunate to have a strong archives collection and dedicated staff. One of my biggest goals is to increase the visibility of our materials, so your mention of the implication of "treasure" is appreciated. It's hard to resist the alliteration, though! :) Thanks again- I deeply appreciate your support of the program.

Add a comment

Name*
Comment*
The following fields are not to be filled out. Skip to Submit Button.
Not Comment
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)
Not URL
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)
Avoid
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)