Ode to the (Nondigital) Archive

I found myself in need of information this week that–gasp!–could not be found electronically or in a normal kind of library. I had to head over to the University Archive on our campus, housed in a place called Special Collections. (I capitalize those words to suggest the appropriate amount of awe I had for the place, having never been there.)

I was on the hunt for course catalogs, course descriptions, and (hopefully) old syllabi from the general education curriculum in the 1940s at the University of Kentucky, especially communications classes, and especially in reference to the Army Specialized Training Program. WHEW. Welcome to the life of a research assistant.

So I headed over to Special Collections. And once we figured out that the somewhat-hard-of-hearing, elderly man assisting me had misunderstood and thought the whole time I was talking to him that I was looking for horse catalogs, rather than course catalogs, it was a pretty simple process. As I was working, he also dug out some old departmental files for me to look through.

I claimed my space at a big wooden table bedecked with old-fashioned lamps and carved signs forbidding the use of “ink or ballpoint pens.” Then I buckled down.

There was something pretty darn awesome about just being in that place. Being there. Hunched over a book that hadn’t been opened in decades rather than hunched over my computer. I mean, really, if you’re going to get bad posture anyway, this is the way to do it. That is not to say that I don’t love digital archives, too. (In fact, I love to flip through the 1912 issue of Poetry magazine, found here. Technology is amazing, I can’t deny it.)

But there’s something about paging through mimeographed interdepartmental notes from the 1920s, or opening a 1930s program from a Shakespeare production, or reading news clippings about Robert Frost’s visit to campus. And there are random, amusing things, too. Someone had clipped a newspaper article with the title “Wife of Dean Beats Off Man with Umbrella.” That was certainly worth putting in an archive, wouldn’t you say?

One of the best items I found, though, was the 1951 inaugural issue of The Green Pen, a booklet put out by the student-run English Club of “the best freshmen writing” of the year.

Some of the writing could have been lifted out of things being written this year in freshmen comp. One essay began like this: “It is a sad but true fact that democracy is a decreasing reality in our American way of life.”

Yes, that was written in 1951.

Just like now, back then students were worried about both their local communities and the national conversations, they were worried about religion (or the lack thereof) among their generation, about whether the University should have an honor code, about American life, and about war (though, granted, in the 1950s some of the students writing about war had actually served in WWII).

But here’s why I loved being there, in that stuffy research room, reading through those files: it was a good reminder that we’re in the same place.

I see how this revelation could be discouraging to some folks, as in, are you kidding me? We haven’t made any progress in sixty years? They were writing about that back then? How depressing.

But as I read through these student essays, I found it encouraging. Encouraging. As in, the world is not falling apart.

It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now.

Even when it seems like it.

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4 comments on “Ode to the (Nondigital) Archive

  1. Elizabeth's Dad says:

    I wonder if ordinary people of every age from the beginning of time were saying the same type of things as your students are sayign and those from the 50s.

    Thanks for reminding us that we have room to hope!

  2. Elaine says:

    This post so reminded me of my college days! We did not have digital anything yet – in fact, my college boasted one of the first computers – it took up 2 rooms in the Science and Engineering Building, and was more of a punch card filer which only computer/science students could access.

    I spent hours in the basement of the library. It was an old building, and to get to the area I needed to be in, you went down two flights of old metal stairs and down some musty, book-lined halls to a back room. It had a musty, dusty odor, and multiple desks were set around with boards on each side so you felt like you had privacy, but in reality, you felt isolated from the world. If you were fortunate enough to be allowed to work upstairs, there were multiple stained-glass windows letting in beautiful schemas of light onto tables which seemed bright and open.

    But I look back now and have fond memories of the hours I spent researching subjects of interest, mostly the field of kinesics. As a music minor, I also spent hours listening to old records – yes, records. We were assigned certain music to listen to and respond each week. I spent many hours sitting in that basement with headphones on!

  3. R, J's brother says:

    I hope you didn’t take J down there…well actually, I’m sure you didn’t since you left and were able to write and post this. As much as it sounds like a wonderful place, you probably shouldn’t take me and J there together as we will likely spend an inordinate amount of time reading everything we find to everyone else;)

  4. elizabeth says:

    Dad,
    You’re probably right–I suppose there’s a reason why Chicken Little’s “the sky is falling” is part of our vernacular.

    Elaine,
    I love picturing you down in a library basement with your headphones on! And I have no idea what “kinesics” is.

    R,
    For my own sanity and that of your lovely wife, this building will not be part of your tour of the University of Kentucky. 🙂

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