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University Archives cavern.

A high bay with 16 tiers of shelving in the University Archives cavern; a forklift is necessary for retriving items.

The past in the present

By Pauline Oo

Dec. 29, 2006

If you, or someone you knew, wrote a master's thesis that was accepted by the University of Minnesota--five or 50 years ago--chances are you'll find it deep in the bowels of the University. And if you sniff around a little longer on that visit to University Archives, you'll find yearbooks, student-staff directories, presidents' reports, athletics programs, faculty papers ... many dating to the University's beginnings.

University Archives and eight other U archives and special collections units are housed in the Elmer L. Andersen Library on the Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis. The library is made up of two parts: a three-story above-ground building that holds office suites and researcher facilities, and two caverns carved out of the sandstone bluffs along the Mississippi River. University Archives, along with the rest of the Archives and Special Collections Department, has dibs on one of the caverns; each is 83 feet deep and two football fields wide. The MINITEX Library Information Network, a system for sharing books and other documents between libraries, occupies the other cavern.

The archives includes 65,000 University publications produced by administrative units and departments, as well as student, faculty and alumni organizations; more than 14,000 linear shelf feet of unpublished paper records, such as correspondence, meeting minutes and reports; more than 90,000 photographs, thousands of reels of film and video; and a large collection of maps, blueprints and posters.

"Back then, there were no mandate and no procedures for retaining important documents," says University archivist Beth Kaplan. William Watts Folwell, the first University president, started what would become University Archives with a modest collection of faculty papers in 1928. "In the 1940s, James Gray, who wrote the University's centennial history, discovered that no policy existed for collecting departmental records. He successfully recommended the establishment of a formal archival program, with the University Libraries as its administrative home."

The Intercampus Streetcar in 1939
The Intercampus Streetcar in 1939, complete with students and a horse, on the St. Paul campus. Photo courtesy of University Archives

Without a systematic, institutionally supported archives program, "we risk losing our history and our ability to be accountable to the people of Minnesota," says Kaplan. "Even mundane documents, such as bound volumes of University payroll information, can help meet important administrative needs. Bound volumes of Board of Regents minutes, for example, can be mined for details about how a building was named or the conditions of a long-forgotten gift to the University."

According to the Board of Regents Libraries and Archives policy, which was updated in 2006 to include digital content, University Archives "shall collect and preserve historically valuable documentation of University units and individuals, including faculty, staff and administrators." Many administrative offices, like the President's Office and Regents Office, do send regular shipments to University Archives.

However, not everything gets to U Archives. Kaplan says many potentially important documents get lost or are inadvertently thrown away because people don't know about the Archives or are not aware of the University policy.

Using the collections

The University Archives collections are open to the public for use in the reading room in Elmer L. Andersen Library from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and by special appointment. Detailed information about the collections is available on the University Archives Web site and in guides and card files available onsite and by mail. Please contact the archives in advance of your visit so that the staff may prepare your materials and recommend resources. Reference assistance is also available by contacting or 612-624-0562.

"In the past, many key staff members spent their entire careers at the University," says Kaplan. "Today, the rate of turnover is high, and that means we need to be constantly on the lookout for opportunities to spread the word about the archives and the benefits of sending records to us. Sending records to the archives means they will be organized, described and accessible to the office that created them and to the public."

What to save, what to throw away

Kaplan, who has degrees in history and archival administration, says not every document or record is valuable. U Archives has carefully developed criteria to decide what materials to acquire and save as local or University history.

"Learning to be an archivist is really about learning what to save and how to make it easy to find," she says. "When we appraise a collection of faculty papers, we don't keep routine items, or duplicates or materials that are available elsewhere. We do keep materials that provide insight into the person and process behind the publications. So, that could include correspondence with colleagues and family, field notes, research materials, talks, photographs and so on. For departmental or administrative collections, we look for anything from annual reports to self-studies to meeting minutes, correspondence, press releases, speeches from administrators and more."

Guidelines and instructions for sending records to University Archives are available on the archives Web site or by contacting the staff directly. The Records and Information Management Program of the Office of General Counsel has a Web page listing the different types of records that should be offered to the archives for permanent retention as well as those that can be destroyed.

Last month University Archives had 65 walk-in visitors, in addition to numerous phone calls and e-mails. People come in looking for old photographs, seeking information about an influential faculty member or wanting to know when a particular department was established or incorporated into a new college and why.

"We try to do as much as we can to provide the information, but in many cases people need to come into the archives and interpret the sources themselves," says Kaplan. "If you need to come in, what we might do is pinpoint three boxes in which you can likely find what you need."

Digital resources

Currently, Kaplan is working with colleagues throughout the Libraries on a digital institutional repository initiative called the University Digital Conservancy. The conservancy is a University-wide program that will provide safe, permanent storage and access to digital institutional information assets. It will serve as the "digital arm" of University Archives, and it will also be a place for faculty to share publications and research data.

This initiative was the final recommendation of a University Libraries-sponsored Presidential Emerging Leaders project in 2005 that surveyed campus needs with regard to archiving of digital information, such as publications, committee reports and administrative records. The University Digital Conservancy will launch in late January.

Clown Band members
Some members of the 1916 University of Minnesota Clown Band. Photo courtesy of University Archives

"We're also digitizing some of our especially high-use paper records and they will be accessible in the conservancy," says Kaplan. "Among the first collections that will be available through the conservancy are a variety of materials related to the Strategic Positioning process and digitized minutes of the Board of Regents from the 1980s."

University Archives certainly has a lot to offer. Its sheer size will shock you, its programs are innovative, its growing staff is a knowledgeable, and very determined, lot ... it's THE place to go for anything to do with the University of Minnesota.