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Digging up history

Before Allen Ginsberg’s famous “Howl” became the archetypal poem of the Beat Generation, it first went through multiple revisions. The original manuscript containing Ginsberg’s handwritten revisions is part of the extensive collection of Ginsberg’s correspondence, notebooks, journals, photographs and videos housed in Stanford Archive’s Special Collections.

(SERENITY NGUYEN/The Stanford Daily)


The Ginsberg collection is only one of the many resources available in the Stanford Archives, whose vast historical records offer new opportunities for students. The Archives consist of three main collecting areas: official administrative records of the University, faculty papers and materials documenting the Stanford family.


“[The archives] are very broad and have a variety of formats,” Stanford University Archivist Daniel Hartwig said. “Currently, we have over 30,000 linear feet of material and dozens of terabytes of electronic records.”


Last year, at least three award-winning honors theses were based on topics centered on research from the archives. Donovan Ervin ’11, who graduated last June, was awarded the Robert M. Golden Medal for Excellence for his thesis “We Shall Overcome: The Anti-Apartheid Movement and Its Effects on the Stanford Community.” Ervin focused on how the anti-apartheid movement was used on campus to fight injustice in South Africa and as a way for black students at Stanford to gain a political voice.


“I had another project that I had started working on as a junior, but it didn’t work out since it was too difficult to get primary source documents,” Ervin said. “For this one, I knew that all the primary source documents I needed would be right here on campus.”


Ervin’s research relied on materials from the archives, including personal interviews with alumni and professors, old newspaper articles, flyers from school rallies, papers written by past activists and articles from The San Francisco Chronicle and The Stanford Daily.


“The archives gave me the foundation to create a story,” Ervin said. “This allowed me to go into deeper analysis of what I was eventually finding in my research.”


Ryan Mac ’11, a former Daily editor, wrote “The Long History of ROTC at Stanford: From Precursors to the Present,” focusing on the history of the Reserve Officer Training Corps and the reasons it left campus during the Vietnam Era. To develop his thesis, Mac used the Special Collections, several old records, original documents, primary sources and ROTC files dating back to the establishment of the Special Collections in the 1890s.


“The reason why I agreed to do this thesis is, unlike a topic you have to travel to, all I had to do was go over to Special Collections and walk back to my dorm,” Mac said.


Like Ervin and Mac, Hartwig spoke of the popularity of the archives among students in finding materials for the arts, drama, dance, publishing, exhibitions and audio and video collections. Trends in student work vary from interest in the wars, women’s rights and minority issues during the ’60s and ’70s to the growth of the University during the ’40s and ’50s. Students frequently address these topics in research, Ph.D. dissertations and senior honors theses.


Hava Mirell ’12 first used the archives to write a 25-page research paper for a class on the history of women at Stanford and its implications for the campus. Mirell began by looking through diaries, letters and albums.


“One day, one really helpful archivist told me about the card-filing system, which is way better than anything online,” Mirell said. “You look up “w” for women, and it has a card for every article published by women or for coeducation at Stanford, showing students’ opinions and giving a dialogue from that.”


From there, Mirell’s research expanded to include presidents’ reports and bulletins of courses made specifically for women. For the past two months, Mirell said she has spent an average of three to four hours at the archives three days a week.


“Archival research adds a lot of color to whatever paper you are doing,” Mirell said. “It is very valuable to incorporate actual pictures, cartoons and quotations. The language is so rich, and this [research] gives you more respect and authority as a writer.”


While writing her paper, Mirell is also working on her senior honors thesis on conflict diamonds in Zimbabwe.


“The problem is, I can’t travel there to collect primary resources, so I am mostly depending on secondary information,” Mirell said. “It is less exciting because you don’t really hear the people’s voices, unlike when I am sitting here reading this diary and knowing that this is a woman who was here 100 years before me. Getting to see what women like me had to overcome is personally gratifying.”


With the increasing amount of students using the collections for research, the archivists continue to expand the availability and accessibility of the archives. According to Hartwig, almost 90 percent of the materials is searchable through Google, and aids and guides are available online. Several audio, video and oral histories have been digitized as well. However, the archives offer something digital versions cannot.


“Knowing that the exact same things that I am touching in my hands were actual articles of history makes it tangible,” Ervin said. “There is a certain level of authenticity that makes it easier to relate to and less abstract.”


Both Mac and Mirell agreed, noting the differences between viewing documents in person and on a screen.


“On Google, I found a digitized Stanford review, and it wasn’t the same experience as in the archives because you are just scrolling instead of looking at every page,” Mirell said. “Even with advertisements that are online, you are prone to skip over it, but when you see it in a book, you think about what it is saying about the culture of women.”


In the case of material that can only be found in the archives, the information is unique to Stanford.


“The archives are the most incredibly helpful and underutilized resources on campus,” Mirell said. “The archivists themselves go above and beyond to answer any question you may have. They are just the best.”

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