Inside Deering’s Dungeon: Life of an Archivist

The smile on Janet Olson’s face was hard to miss. Her enthusiasm was obvious and real, as she motioned to the gray boxes that lined the walls in the basement of Deering Library.

“Have you ever been down here before?” she asked, clearly acknowledging the fact that most students don’t know much about her job.

As the Assistant University Archivist at Northwestern, Olson has gotten to know the history inside of those 30,000 linear feet of boxes pretty well. She spends her days organizing material submitted from faculty and students, making it all accessible to those seeking information about Northwestern. They have a lot of history in that basement- so much actually, that they had to move some of it underground beneath the Fairchild dorms.

“We don’t know what you want to know about. Our job is to really know what we have,” Olson said.

Janet Olson, in the midst of the all-knowing gray boxes

And what exactly do we have? Everything anyone could have ever wanted to know about this school, and then some. Olson can tell you when a building was built or what years your grandma went to school. She can show you scrapbooks students made, plastered with pictures, ticket stubs, and dance cards. She can find you pictures of legendary football games or pull out a yearbook that was printed decades ago.  She can find you any edition of The Daily Northwestern from  1871-2000, which they are proud to have just digitalized.

The archivists also create exhibits in the library to highlight aspects of Northwestern’s history. The Patricia Neal exhibit will be on display in January, followed by a scrapbooks exhibit next fall, 2013. Olson eagerly explained that a scrapbook is so intriguing because it “documents their [students’] lives in a very different way.”

The great part is that anyone can utilize the material. Olson strongly encourages students to come down the stairs for a visit if they’re writing a research paper, because there is nothing more real than a primary source.

“Students have said it’s very empowering; they’re in control of their conclusions,” Olson said of student involvement with archives. Someone interested in using the resources, need only call or email Northwestern University Archives to set up an appointment. One can also walk in, but it’s better to notify an archivist because he or she will have time to pull materials out before one’s arrival. “When you supply the material and they have that ‘aha!’ moment… that’s the fun part.”

Technology proves to be a factor that just doesn’t sit well with the past. Olson explained that physical objects are hard to come by nowadays. Not many people, especially students, write hand-written letters anymore, or print out their pictures. It’s hard to preserve something that doesn’t exist in its physical form.

“In the past, we’re used to coming in at the end. Now, we have to come in at the beginning and talk to them about how we can preserve it,” Olson said of her role in making sure objects are protected and available for years to come. The Archivists have noticed less submitted material from student groups because students today have grown up in a generation where much is only kept online.  When Olson is given a flash drive with pictures, she finds it hard to identify names, dates, and places because she can’t just flip it over and look at what’s written on the back by the donor.

In response to the technology barrier, Olson and her co-workers are making an effort to reach out to the online world, hoping to garner attention for their line of work. They recently made a video featuring them singing the NU Fight Song, celebrating its one-hundredth year anniversary. The video is available on their Facebook page, “NU Archives”, which also features a ‘then and now’ series as well as other random historical facts. Their twitter feed, @NUArchives, tweets a fact a day, and has grown quite popular: it now has over 1,200 followers.

“We want to get people’s attention. It hasn’t always been that archives are so accessible. We’re not scary people in a basement,” Olson promised while laughing.

But the notion that a lot of valuable, historical material is still slipping through the cracks alarmed Olson, who wondered, “uh oh, are we losing things?” It would be unfortunate if this generation, consumed by technology, loses its place in physical history for generations to come. That’s why Olson urged student groups to print as much and collect as much as they can, or else they and the University will regret the blank space in the Archives. She steps in to help and remind because “continuity is hard for student organizations; when things are happening, you don’t think about preserving.”

And she doesn’t want any of those gray boxes sitting hollow.

photo- Megan Wood

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