As the University Archivist, what do you spend the bulk of your day doing?
This is a somewhat difficult question for me to answer because I have so many other responsibilities besides being the university archivist. I am also a processing archivist and have acquisitions duties and faculty responsibilities. I am actually the university archivist only 25% of the time. So, no two days are the same, and some days I don’t do anything related to university archives! When I am working on university archives stuff I’m doing things like meeting with departments on campus to discuss their records; creating records retention schedules; helping the Carlson Intern process collections; drafting policies; appraising university historical materials; and surveying university archives collections to figure out what needs to be processed.
What sort of collections might researchers find in the University Archives?
The records and collections deemed “university archives” include three types of collections: official records of the university, faculty papers, and student organization records.
Official records of the university include collections from units on campus, such as the Student Affairs Office records, which provide a nice documentation of functions such as recruitment, enrollment, financial aid, and admissions; and the Intercollegiate Athletics Department records, which contain films of football and basketball games. A must-mention collection is the UW President’s Office records. This collection is the largest university archives collection (over 600 cubic feet) and documents the university from its inception to the 21st century. There are several other collections from university units, such as Academic Affairs, which contains information on nearly every academic unit and many of the administrative units.
Faculty papers are donated to the AHC and typically document a faculty member’s teaching and research. The name is a bit misleading, as our “faculty” collections include records from staff, too. For example, the Ralph McWhinnie papers are cataloged as a faculty collection even though McWhinnie was the UW Registrar, technically a staff member, for about forty years. This collection contains all sorts of historical material documenting the university, including full runs of publications and subject files. Then we have collections such as the S.H. Knight papers , which document Knight’s research and teaching in geology but has mainly been used because of the thousands of photographs of UW and Wyoming .
Finally, student organization records and miscellaneous collections are the smallest group of records among these three. We have collections documenting fraternities and sororities, honorary organizations, and student clubs. We are trying to increase these collections because it has been difficult to acquire the records of student organizations. This group also contains collections such as the Matthew Shepard collection and Matthew Shepard Web Archive.
Some people might be wondering why University Archives are important. How would you describe their importance?
These three types of collections are important for several reasons. For one, they document the university’s history, including reasons behind administrative decisions, how an event or controversy on campus played out, and other functions and activities of the university such as teaching, athletics, and student life. As such, these records help the University remain transparent and accountable to Wyoming citizens; we’re a public institution after all. These records are useful to UW employees if they need to look at a report or other document that was transferred to the archives. But that is only one, small way they are used and valued. There is not only a wealth of information about UW’s history but records in university archives collections also show how major historical events affected the university, making the records a goldmine for students and researchers of all sorts of topics. If you have ever had to narrow down a huge topic such as the Great Depression, or the Civil Rights Movement, or McCarthyism- all of these events affected the University and you can find out exactly how through the records.
AND- our faculty collections are important to researchers in various subjects such as botany, geology, engineering, and the arts. A fun example to mention are the records of Leo Sprinkle, a professor emeritus who taught psychology and was a counselor on campus from the 1960s to the 1980s. Sprinkle did a lot of research into the paranormal, things like hypnosis and parapsychology, and also UFOs and abductees. It would definitely be of interest to anyone studying these areas or the broader culture behind it. Or, it could be something a writer might find inspirational for a story or script. There’s also information on the Rocky Mountain UFO Conference held in Laramie each year.
On to the more personal questions! What is your favorite aspect of being the University Archivist?
I think my favorite aspect is being able to meet with so many different people on campus. Being the university archivist means I get to visit different units and work with various administrators, staff, and faculty. One week I could be talking with an office associate in the Music Department, and the next I’m working with the associate VP of Student Affairs. I appreciate this part of my job because it makes me an advocate for the archives (which can be a lot of pressure, too!) and it provides the unique opportunity to meet a bunch of people on campus that I otherwise wouldn’t.
What types of collections would you like to add to the University Archives? Of anyone associated with the UW community, who would you most like to see donate their papers?
Well, I’ve been thinking about this and one area I really wish we could start acquiring is more electronic records. These wouldn’t necessarily be new collections, but additions to some of our major collections such as the President’s Office and Board of Trustees collections. I know these units and every other unit on campus are creating historical records digitally, but we have not yet received electronic records on a regular basis. This worries me.
How do you view the changes impacting archives, what with so many digital records to handle?
It’s overwhelming. I’m worried there will be a huge gap in the historical record of the university if we don’t develop some sort of plan to regularly acquire electronic records. I’m sure you can imagine just how many born-digital records are created by the university each day: all of the emails, Word docs, presentations, Excel spreadsheets, websites, etc., etc. Many of these digital records contain important information documenting the university’s functions, people, activities, and so on, and so it IS important that they be preserved and made accessible just like the paper records that came before them. Although the archives profession has made strides just in the past few years to tackle the problem, I’m not sure exactly how we will handle it. One of the basic but very challenging problems with this is just getting people to think about their electronic records as important historical records that are in danger of disappearing if they’re not transferred to the archives. So, outreach is one side of it, but then actually managing electronic records takes a lot of time and resources, too. We have some of the first steps covered and can accession electronic records, but then there are all of the challenges and issues that go hand in hand with providing access to the records (describing them and making them accessible to patrons), plus preservation issues of obsolescence, migration–ei! It’s enough to drive you to drink.
How can campus units start the donation process for their records? Is there anything that you don’t want?
If a campus unit wants to transfer material, they can simply contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Once I have more information about the unit and the records, I appraise them and decide what should be transferred. I encourage all units that contact me to work with me to create a records retention schedule which spells out exactly what we want and what they can eventually toss. There are a LOT of things we don’t want. I think I read somewhere that most university archives can only really handle 5% of the total amount of records produced by a university. We are only interested in receiving materials of long-term value that can be accessed by the public. There are some, but very few, exceptions to this.
If an individual is curious about donating papers to the University Archives, what should they know? How would you assuage any concerns they might have?
If someone is interested in donating faculty papers or a collection related to the history of the university, I would first say that is great! I am happy to work with you. However, our limited resources prevent us from taking every collection offered to us. We are mostly interested in primary sources, things like correspondence, photographs, and other unique materials that record a slice (or the whole pie) of UW history. If they are interested in donating a faculty member’s collection, we do have a collecting policy specific to faculty collections.
Generally I can work with the donor to help figure out what should be donated, and we can put limited restrictions on certain collections if there are any privacy concerns. Any and all other concerns should be brought up during the initial discussion.
Why don’t more University of Wyoming departments have their papers here at the AHC?
Because of the fragmented history of the university archives’ existence. In the 1940s the university had planned to start a university archives and even approved a policy allowing the university archivist the chance to look at materials before they were destroyed. Unfortunately, this policy was not upheld for several reasons. Probably the biggest reason was that there was not a formal university archivist until the 1990s. I am only the second university archivist in UW’s history. But also, there has never been a mandate for units to follow; they don’t have to send their stuff to us. Because the university archivist is only a quarter of my time, it is basically up to each unit on campus to take the initiative to transfer their historical records.
Walk us through the process of working with university departments or individuals connected with UW, from initial conversations to finally processing their records or papers.
Sure! When a university unit contacts me, I will typically set up a meeting with them to learn more about their department and records. Together we generate a list of the records they create and/or receive, which become the basis for the records retention schedule. A retention schedule states how long to keep a record and what to do with it after the retention length. This is then passed back and forth between me, the AHC director, and the unit’s staff until we have something everyone agrees on.
Almost every time a unit contacts me they have a closet or room full of old records that need to be identified and appraised. I will help them go through boxes and box up anything that looks historically valuable for the archives. Once we get it to the AHC it goes to our accessioning department where it receives a collection number, minimal description, and information about the collection and donor are recorded. After that it really depends on use of the collection to determine how long it will take before it is processed (cataloged and organized). The exception to this are records documenting the College of Arts & Sciences. I am fortunate to have a student worker called the Carlson Intern who can help me with collections documenting the College of A&S. This is because of an endowment created by E.G. Meyer which funds a student working ten hours per week to process collections from the College’s departments and faculty members. Because I have a dedicated person to process these-and only these- types of collections, whenever we receive an A&S related collection is gets processed much more quickly than other collections.
What would you say to someone who thinks that University Archives sound a little dull? What have you found that really excites you?
I would bet them one million dollars that they could request any box from a university archives collection, open it, search through the contents, and find at least one thing that is interesting, amusing, touching, or somehow meaningful.* I have seen all sorts of great stuff. Just recently I came across an interesting letter from an artist’s group to UW President Arthur Crane, dated March 26, 1936. The group tells President Crane that they are very unhappy and do not agree with his decision to remove five paintings depicting nude figures from an art exhibit. Although I think these situations used to be fairly common, it is neat to have documentation that it happened at UW. The letter itself is also amusing.
There is a TON of great stuff in the university archives, and much of it is unexplored territory. Those of you looking for unique research topics might be surprised to find that the university archives collections contain a plethora of primary sources about all sorts of subjects. It’s more than just documentation of how a university runs.
*I am just kidding about the million dollar bet.
–Laura Uglean Jackson, University Archivist