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[magazine] The Archivist: A living time-machine engineer [copy ep]

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The Hopkins Room in the Bing Wing of Green Library is spacious, with large, arched windows featuring a magnificent view of Hoover Tower and lined with antique books in wooden bookshelves, giving it that distinctive old book, museum-y smell. This beautiful room is the headquarters for the University Archives, which are not, contrary to what one might assume, located in hidden underground vaults deep within a mountain. With its juxtaposition of antique furniture against top-notch computers and digitization tools, the room is at once historical and futuristic: a perfect reflection of the work that is accomplished there.

 

Preserving and creating narratives

The goal of the University Archives is to preserve institutional memory by capturing student and faculty life at Stanford and to make this content available to researchers and students. With the archives spanning over 60,000 linear feet of manuscript and archival material and containing almost 300,000 books, this is no light task. Charged with deciding what is archive-worthy and what is not, the archivists play a unique role in the simultaneous preservation and creation of historical narrative.

The University Archives is not the only such repository on campus. While the Special Collections branch of Stanford Libraries manages the University Archives, Curators, Reading Room and Manuscripts divisions, the other repositories include Stanford Law School, the Hoover Institute, the Stanford Medical History Center and the Archive of Recorded Sound. There is even an unofficial annual get-together of archivists, where they all convene to discuss ideas for enhancing Stanford’s various collections.

The University Archives has a small staff, with only three full-time archivists, and, according to Head University Archivist Daniel Hartwig, it is difficult to say when the Stanford collection exactly started. There have been four official head University Archivists: Ralph Hansen (who in 1965 was the first to take the role), Roxanne Nilan, Maggie Kimball and now Hartwig.

In his current role, Hartwig collaborates with University offices, faculty, student organizations and institutions to take in materials, write descriptions of them to be used by researchers or in exhibitions and often digitize them. He hopes to broaden the diversity of collections and types of stories that the Archives harbors and also to raise awareness of its tools and interesting collections to the broader University community.

“[Something is archive-worthy] if it documents the history of the University with a keen eye to research value,” Hartwig said. “But this research value changes and evolves. In the past it may have been letters or manuscripts; nowadays, it’s computer files, data sets, email… It gets more sophisticated and more complicated.”

Hartwig contends that while his job is not as grandiose as it might sound, it also does not fit the image of the archivist as someone who simply stores antiquated objects on dusty shelves.

On the contrary, archivists thoroughly engage with the material by describing and organizing it, and researchers in turn analyze and take inspiration from it. Almost every archivist that The Daily spoke with described their work as an extremely active process. 

“I fell in love with the tangible history of seeing in my studies works or ideas that literally changed the world,” Hartwig said. “I was just fascinated by those materials.”

 

Diversifying collections

Across the board, one of the major goals of repositories on campus is to diversify their collections to better represent Stanford students and faculty.

Jenny Johnson, Collections Management and Processing Archivist for the University Archives, explained that working with many of the researchers and putting on exhibits has shown a need for more inclusive collecting and outreach to historically under-documented groups such as women, communities of color, activists and LGBTQ groups.

Assistant University Archivist Josh Schneider also commented on this effort to collect underrepresented materials, officially titled the “Make Your Mark” campaign, stating that archivists are less afraid of exhibiting forward thinking and becoming political where it matters.

“Archivists as a profession are moving away from the idea that we need to be entirely neutral when it comes to collecting,” Schneider said. “[We are] committed to providing that larger context … moving towards being committed to social justice, to being inclusive.”

Drew Bourn, historical curator at the Stanford Medical History Center, spoke to this idea of the archivist as a promoter of social goals.

Bourn collects materials both about the history of medicine at Stanford Medical School and about the history of medicine in general, and he believes that some of the most interesting work that can be done with primary source materials in medicine has to do with social work in relation to race, immigration, gender, sexuality, and labor and capital.

“Being an archivist means you are responsible for making sure the primary source material of history is available and accessible to researchers today and in the future,” Bourn said. “[These materials] are there for researchers to put the pieces together to help us understand the past and figure out why things are the way they are now.”

Part of the Medical History Center’s collection includes materials from a former student at Stanford Medical School, Leo Stanley M.D. ’12, who went on to become the chief medical officer at San Quentin Prison. His papers documented the unethical experiments he conducted on prisoners as part of his research on eugenics. To Bourn, these papers testify to the history and evil of white supremacy and the denial of prisoners’ rights.

But not all of the collections are grim. The Medical History Center also houses the papers of Adelaide Brown, who graduated from Cooper Medical College (a precursor to Stanford Medical School) in 1892 and who later opened up a family planning clinic in San Francisco. (Although it was highly illegal to provide information about contraception, she felt it was important for women, especially poor women, to have this information.)

 

Archiving in the digital age

Preserving these materials for the future can be a difficult task. Schneider and Johnson pointed out that, counterintuitively, the digital materials are actually at the highest risk of obsolescence. Hartwig echoed their sentiments, pointing out that the fundamental challenge of contemporary archivists is that software is ever-evolving and impermanent, which creates complications for preserving digital media. Hartwig used the examples of AOL Instant Messenger and Myspace, jokingly commenting on how communication via these mediums is lost to the void of software obsolescence.

If archivists do not preserve digital media in a timely manner, it is lost forever. Because of this, the University Archives has focused much of its efforts lately on its digital repository. While digitizing materials can be both expensive and difficult, Hartwig believes the benefits outweigh the costs. Hartwig explains that if nothing is done with the magnetic video and audio recording in the archives, it could lose $44 million, according to a cost of inaction calculator that he and his team utilized.

The headquarters of the operation to digitize and provide access to media materials in the collections is the Stanford Media Preservation Lab in Redwood City. The lab consists of three specialists: Media Production Coordinator Geoff Willard, Audio Digitization Specialist Nathan Coy and Moving Image Digitization Specialist Michael Angeletti.

If the Hopkins Room of the University Archives is the quintessential archive base — with its antiquated books and boxes filled with artifacts — the Media Preservation Lab is its 21st century counterpart. It consists of two separate high-tech recording studios, a video lab and an electronics work studio. All of these studios are used by the members of the lab to create objects for the digital repository, modeled after work done at Indiana University and The British Library.

The recording studios are soundproofed and contain advanced software and audio devices used to digitize outdated record players and compact cassette tapes, while the video studio contains many old-fashioned film monitors and tapes.

All of this equipment is serviced in the electronics work studio, where the team cleans and fixes old technology using parts purchased from anywhere they are still sold (primarily eBay). They also call in specialized mechanics who are often retired or the sole technician still working with that format of media. While the process of digitizing so much content can be cumbersome, lab members on the whole state that they enjoy the work.

“My favorite part of this work is the content,” Angeletti said. “It’s hard to imagine doing this job if you don’t really enjoy the material you’re working with, and they do have some really fantastic collections. You’re learning something new every day.”

Franz Kunst, Processing Archivist for the Preservation Lab, said that the most rewarding part of the job is when collections start coming together thematically.

“[My favorite part of my work is] when you have a mess of a collection, and you sort it into an order… it’s a tricky thing, and it takes a lot of experience and a lot of judgement calls,” Kunst said. “But there are so many occasions where I will sort through a bunch of papers that don’t make sense, get them into chronological order, and then you see this narrative that just suddenly pops out.”

Some of the highlights of Stanford’s collections include early photographs of Eadweard Muybridge (the founder of motion photography), papers from Black Panther Party members, the largest collection of rare books written in Arabic script (dating back to the 13th century) and recordings from Allen Ginsberg (an American poet and one of the lead figures of the Beat generation).

To the archivists, while these materials are incredibly unique and valuable in and of themselves, they’re not worth anything if they sit on a shelf somewhere, unused. Teaching, learning and research based on these materials adds the real value, so the archivists of Stanford’s collections strive to make them increasingly known and accessible to the academic community and beyond.

Although it may evoke a history already set in stone, in reality, the University Archives is anything but stagnant.

 

Contact Ellie Bowen at ebowen ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Ellie Bowen is a junior from Grand Rapids, Michigan, studying Symbolic Systems and English Lit. She works as managing editor of news for Vol. 255. When she’s not spending inordinate amounts of time at the Daily building, Ellie loves to read National Geographic, play the piano, and defiantly use oxford commas.