Special edition: 5 questions with…the university archivists

The Western Reserve College constitution. Find out more about it in question No. 3.

Case Western Reserve University has a long, storied past—from the founding of Western Reserve College in 1826 and Case School of Applied Science in 1880 to the subsequent renaming to Western Reserve University in 1882 and Case Institute of Technology in 1947, and then, finally, the federation of the two schools in 1967.

Throughout the university’s 187 years, there are a multitude of important points to keep track of, dates to remember and stories to tell—which is precisely where the University Archives come into play.

Established in 1967 at the first meeting of the Case Western Reserve University trustees, the University Archives take custody of print and digital documents created by the university. Then, the team of three archivists takes this information and organizes it so the documents can be understood and used efficiently, explained Jill Tatem, university archivist and interim team leader.

“Our job is to remember and to remind,” Tatem said. “For long-lived organizations, the consequences of decisions and actions are felt long after they’re made. So, we need reliable long-term institutional memory. And that is the job of the archives: continuously acquiring the information in which memory is embedded and putting it to use when needed.”

The archives’ collection documents all 19 schools from throughout the university’s history, as well as every administrative division. The paper collection totals more than 13,000 linear feet, or 26.6 million pages, or approximately 400,000 pounds. Among the Case Institute of Technology, Western Reserve University and Case Western Reserve University’s combined 274 years of institutional life, this averages out to about 48 feet per year—“not a lot of documents for such a complex organization,” Tatem noted.

Because the archivists—Tatem, Eleanor Blackman and Helen Conger—spend their days analyzing the ins and outs of Case Western Reserve, the archives generally are the first stop for individuals seeking information on any detail about the university’s history, whether large or small. The archivists assist individuals looking for the answer to a simple question or those conducting in-depth customized research, those looking for a dated photo for an anniversary or retirement or people seeking to conduct their own research using the collection—including journalists, novelists, historians and, of course, faculty and students.

We asked them our own questions in a special edition of The Daily’s five questions. Read on to find out the most common, the strangest and the largest of all archived pieces—and much more.

1. What would you say is the most commonly requested archive?
The photo collection (print and digital) is one of the most heavily used components of the archives. We are digitizing the photos and making copies available through Digital Case. At approximately half a million photos, it will take awhile for us to digitize it all, however.

Almost half of the requests we receive are about people. So, biographical sources such as yearbooks and directories are heavily used. University, school and even department annual reports are heavily used, as are the catalogs. The range of questions is so broad that there is very little of the collection that is not used at least annually.

2. What, in your times here, has been the strangest request(s) or item(s) received?
We like to think of these as challenging or stimulating, rather than strange, requests. Recently someone sent us a digital image of six people lined up holding shovels. The user asked us to identify the people in the image, the date, and what the event was; the only clue was that it was a groundbreaking. We determined the picture was of the groundbreaking ceremony for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which had a relatively short life from 1955 to 1967 on the Case campus near the present-day Glennan Building. We certainly don’t claim to know everything about CWRU’s history—we’re always learning something surprising—but the three archivists together have over 60 years’ experience with this collection.

We’re selective in what we add to the collection, so we fend off most true oddities, which we tactfully call “outside our collecting scope.” The timing of transfers is frequently surprising, though. In 2004 we received 19 boxes of records created by the Department of Education. This was 25 years after the education department closed. The records were discovered by another department while cleaning out a basement room.

And a more recent addition: A descendant of Francis R. Bacon, dean of the School of Architecture, donated an album of the class pictures of all the architecture school’s graduating classes from 1929 to 1943. We received this gift in 2010—57 years after the School of Architecture closed.

3. What is the oldest archived piece you have—and what’s the history behind it?
Western Reserve College was chartered by the State of Ohio in February 1826 and instruction began that fall. But it takes time to establish a college. Our collection begins in March 1825 with two documents: a constitution for the Board of Trustees and the Profession and Covenant. The latter is what we would now consider a mission and values statement.

4. What is the largest, and the smallest, archived item?
One of the smallest items we have is a daguerreotype (an early photographic format) of the Western Reserve College Class of 1848. It measures 3 inches by 3.5 inches. We also have the 1902 annual report of the College for Women Alumnae Association that fits on a 3 inch by 5 inch card.

The largest items are architectural drawings and campus plans. For example, we have Henry Vaughan’s original 1910 linen drawings of Amasa Stone Chapel. They measure 3 feet by 5 feet.

5. Why do people usually come looking in the archives? Pure curiosity, or are they on a mission?
Our users are always looking for information for specific projects—always on a mission and often on deadline. Many archives do exhibits for casual users. Unfortunately, our off-campus location (in the Bioenterprise Building) with limited parking does not invite casual use. So, we put our exhibits on our website, where they are more accessible—no parking permits needed on the web.

For more information on the University Archives, visit case.edu/its/archives/ and their blog, Recollections, at blog.case.edu/archives/.

1 Comment

  1. Susan Miller

    02/13/2013

    As the medical mart decisions bore down upon us in 2007/08, a friend and I went to Public Auditorium and photographed the WPA lunettes. Some of the artists were immediately recognizable; others were not. Research gave us all the names except one.

    I made an appointment for myself and the Group Plan’s chronicler, David Ellison to visit the special collections at Kelvin Smith Library. A cart was hauled out for our perusal. At the end of 4 hours of reading all sorts of documents yet not finding what we sought, we were discouraged. It was time to go, and again we seemed to have reached a dead end. No one in Cleveland nor any WPA arts scholars knew the name of the artist, and we could not post our exhibit of the murals with all the titles and artists. But the very last item we had to view was a handful of 3×5 cards, and there it was! Written in pencil with a steady hand were the titles and the names of the artists of each of the lunettes. A part of Cleveland history was discovered and revealed. Thanks!

    See the lunettes from Public Auditorium and the fascinating history of the Group Plan here: http://groupplan.dhellison.com/buildings.php?ss=ConventionCtrMurals

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