In a newly renovated space above the Hatfield Library (still with its “new archives smell”), Mary McRobinson and her small staff tend to the remnants of this place’s history. All the documents and artifacts, many of which are all but forgotten beyond the library’s walls, show us the arc of the Willamette story and help us reconstruct the lives of the leaders who have shaped the university and the State of Oregon.
The Scene has already showcased a letter from Joseph Stalin to a worldly alumnus (see Fall 2010), but there are plenty of other gems. McRobinson makes sure that students, faculty and independent researchers know where to find them.
What challenges you in this job?
Surprisingly enough, one of the primary challenges we face today is how to manage and preserve content that is born digitally — video, audio files, email and enormous amounts of documentation. This is because so many technologies are becoming obsolete so fast. Nobody’s computer can read floppy discs anymore; laptops rarely have CD drives nowadays. We struggle to capture and maintain data in ways that will make sense in the future.
Other media are challenging, too. Take video tape. 8mm and 16mm films are super robust — if they’re kept in good condition, they’ll last decades. VHS tapes were inherently unstable, though, and a lot of people took old film and transferred it to VHS thinking it would be easier to use. It was, but it deteriorates rapidly.
You’ve been here a while. Why and how does one become a university archivist?
I wanted to do my master’s in history but knew I didn’t want to get a PhD and teach, so I looked to archival work — I think of it as working with history on the back end. We make “history in the raw” available to the researchers and historians. In my early work I built up pretty extensive experience with political collections, which helped me once I came to Willamette since so much of our history relates to Oregon and national politics.
What do you like best about the job?
I have one of the best jobs on campus. I like that I get to do a huge variety of things. I love working with people, so I love donor relations — I’ve gotten to meet some of the most fascinating people as they’ve thought about donating their collections. I really enjoy working with Willamette classes and community groups, too.
Students are often surprised by the archives. Doing research with primary source materials is completely different than working with secondary materials, and they have fun when we open these up to them. They get to extract the ideas directly instead of having someone else process them; it’s empowering in that way.
What’s the wackiest or most impressive artifact you’ve come across?
Our collections are so diverse that it’s impossible to pick a favorite. For me a single artifact is more interesting when there are related materials and context provided, which allow me to learn the story that goes with the item or to do some sleuthing.
One of our political collections contains a statue of a shiny black seal balancing a gold dollar sign on its nose. From the base to the tip of the dollar sign, the statue stands just shy of five feet tall. The undergraduates, in particular, love this artifact. As we understand it, the statue is meant to symbolize a balanced budget.
Is there a type of record or material you wish WU had been better about keeping over the years?
In general, it would be nice to have more of the early history documented. The 1919 Waller Hall fire hurt us because a lot of records were destroyed. We know that administrative files and other materials were lost at that point.
We have President Whitaker’s records from 1891 – 93, but those are about the earliest presidential records we have. One thing that’s so interesting — and challenging — is that the function of the president’s office has changed so dramatically over time and from president to president. We can glean some information from yearbooks and bulletins and catalogs, but it’s limited.
One example is that, early on, if you were a new student and you pulled into town, one of the first things you’d do is go see the president and he’d find you a place to live. I use this with current students to illustrate one of the ways Willamette has changed. I ask them, ‘How many of you dropped in on President Thorsett for a house rental when you showed up?’ They enjoy that.