Maynard Brichford wasn't thinking about the past when he was given the task of starting the University Archives.
In honor of the University Archives' 50th anniversary, this series will feature an image and accompanying text, selected from the archives’ vast holdings, in each issue of Inside Illinois. <>
He was looking to the future.
Brichford had become the university's first professional archivist in 1963 after campus leaders decided creating a central "place" dedicated to collecting and preserving the university's historical record was long overdue.
"Up to that point there were many collections of records and papers on campus, but they were scattered all over the place, stored in boxes and closets and not accessible for users," said William Maher, who took over as university archivist in 1995 after working alongside Brichford for 18 years. "There wasn't anything connecting them."
Brichford set out to change that, developing an organizational scheme and a preservation approach that focused on accounting for and protecting campus records and faculty papers before they were lost.
"He made many important and long-lasting contributions," Maher said. "He knew that bridging the past to the present can shape the future."
This year the archives celebrates 50 years of being that bridge. Beginning with this issue, Inside Illinois will begin a new series, "From the Archives," which will feature an image and accompanying text that the archivists have selected from the archives' vast holdings.
The University Archives is a repository for U. of I. records and for items created by several outside organizations.
Photo courtesy University Archives
"For us, it was like selecting which of our thousands of children we would feed and clothe and which we would just leave in their boxes," Maher said.
At 50, the University Archives has expanded well past its offices and collections in the main Library and includes the Student Life and Culture Archives, the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music, and a host of outside valuable research collections managed on contract by archives staff members. Many records are stored in an off-site location on the south campus.
"There are too many unfortunate stereotypes that come up when you talk about archives," Maher said, "such as they're dark and dank and dusty and shut off from the rest of the world. But we don't want any of that - we're about shining a light on things."
He said the archives' twofold mission, first championed by Brichford, is to preserve information for its role in administrative support and accountability, and for its research and heritage value.
"When you work in archives you absorb the philosophy that eventually, the sensitivity (of documents) will diminish over the years," he said. "That means that even things which might initially put someone in a less than optimal light should eventually become available for research, even if it takes a few decades. The integrity of the record and value of history mean that we have a responsibility to support this transparency."
A trip to the archives can take you to just about any place and any moment in time.
Some collections, like personal papers and sensitive records, have been collected internally or given to the university outright for safekeeping. For example, the notes kept in the mid-1800s by Gregor Mendel, considered the father of the study of genetics, can be found there, and the archives is acquiring the paper and electronic files of the late Carl Woese, a renowned U. of I. geneticist who has been called "the modern Darwin."
"Faculty papers can take you well beyond the borders of our campus," Maher said.
Others, such as the archives Advertising Council historical collection, known for such public advertising icons as Smokey Bear and the "Crash Dummies," are sponsored by an outside organization and managed by University Archives' staff members.
"They get here by various routes," Maher said of the items in their collections.
Regardless of the origins, the archives is a veritable treasure trove for researchers looking to connect the dots for some lost or yet-undiscovered story.
"Our treasures aren't the kind you put on a shelf and admire," he said. "They're here for people to use. We have things you wouldn't expect to find here - but you find it. Seeing what researchers do with this information is just amazing. We're about the university, but about so much more."
Maher said he would like to see the University Archives' anniversary as a springboard to begin the conversation about expanding its facilities.
While neither dark nor dank, the main archives quarters in the University Library are cramped, and the off-site storage site at the Horticulture Field Laboratory is in need of an updated ventilation system to keep the oldest of the items from crumbling away.
"We need to continue to grow and we need to be constantly adding new material in all formats," he said. "If not, the archives become sort of a shrine to just one version of the past."
He said part of growing is not just adding collections, "which have a habit of just showing up from time to time," but expanding the "user community" as well.
The Sousa Archives, for example, has offered programs in its space and at area schools for students from elementary through high school, and it has broadened its focus to include the history of American music. Maher said it draws researchers from all over the world.
"We can't compete with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," Maher said, "but we can focus on engaging the local community and the international community that the university brings to our door."
Other archives staff members are working to bring items of relevance from certain collections into the classroom to add depth and a campus connection.
"The Student Life and Culture Archives has brought hundreds of students to the archives who wouldn't necessarily have come here," he said.
Intent alone will not keep the archives up with the times.
The archives already is the sole repository of university records, but paper records have given way to electronic ones, and Maher said archives staff members have fought mightily to keep ahead of the technological curve.
In addition, the archives is constructing an initiative to capture electronic records of university administrators and is working to digitize other materials in an effort to make them more accessible to the public.
"These are things that used to be put in file cabinets, then boxes and then sent to the basement to wait for the archivist," he said. "That's why we are working to manage electronic records as they are created and used, so that the university will not enter a digital dark age."
He noted that the Library has just received word of approval from the National Endowment for the Humanities grant in support of a new, state-of-the-art environmental system for the south campus Archives Research Center.
There also are plans in the next year to move some of the archives functions to a more-visible and accessible first-floor location in the main Library.
However the future unfolds, a university archivist is sure to be there documenting it.
"Our plan for the future is to be here so the heritage and the records of the people of the present will be there in the future for others to examine them," he said. "We spend a lot of time thinking about the future."