Getting caught up with clutter might not be in the cards for the hard-working staff at the University at Albany’s M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives. The “stuff” just keeps on coming in.
Recent additions to its treasure trove of history — items like the complete records of the Woman’s Club of Albany and the personal collection of Schenectady labor activist Helen Quirini — will keep UAlbany’s Special Collections Department knee deep in work. And, while other academic institutions throughout the Capital Region also have an archival or special collections department, some with extremely valuable artifacts, none can match the sheer volume of material that has been amassed at Albany.
“We’ll always have a backlog, so we’ll always be a little bit behind,” said archivist Geoff Williams. “We’re still collecting things and one of our priorities is to have online records of everything in our collection. Another priority is making sure people are aware of what we have. We have a wonderful presence on the Web and it’s very important to share our materials with the public.”
Williams is in charge of the University Archives, which collects materials that relate to the history of the university, including its days as a teacher’s college and its founding back in 1844.
The archives are just one of four distinct categories under the umbrella of the Special Collections Department, which is part of the University Library. The other three are the German and Jewish Intellectual Emigre Collection, the Archives of Public Affairs and Policy, and the Miriam Snow Mathes Historical Children’s Literature Collection. Like the University Archives, everything in the Special Collections Department is available to the public.
“When we take something in, we have the people sign a donation agreement, which gives us the rights to show people their records,” said Brian Keough, who oversees all four divisions as head of the M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives. “So we’re very welcoming. We’re happy for people to come right into our main site and take a look at whatever might interest them. We also have a great website that allows people to see what we have, and we urge everyone to contact us, let us know what they’re looking for, and we’ll have it waiting for them when they come in.”
The M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives is on the third floor of UAlbany’s Science Library, on the south side of the academic podium between the Campus Center and the athletic fields. The facility opened in the fall of 1999, two months after Keough began working at the university.
“We kept our storage space in the old library, and we have a lot of room in this building on the third floor and the basement,” said Keough. “We’re still busy doing the Helen Quirini Collection and we’ll be working with the Woman’s Club of Albany, organizing and categorizing all of their records.
“We have a lot of items from women’s clubs, like the M.C. Lawton Civic and Cultural Club, which was a group made up of African-American women right after World War I, and we have the records of the League of Women Voters from Albany, Schenectady and Rensselaer counties.
“Any group that advocated something, that tried to affect legislation in New York, is a group we’d be interested in. Sometimes I see something in a newspaper or online and I’ll contact that group and let them know we’re interested in their records, and sometimes the group contacts us.”
Relatively new trend
For years, most colleges and universities kept their records and perhaps a few other important items tucked away on a shelf somewhere in the library. That all started changing in the 1960s, according to Williams.
“There were very few archives back in the 1940s and ’50s, but they started being developed in the 1960s, when there was an explosion of different schools coming into existence or older ones expanding,” said Williams. “If you were a real university and treasured your history, you started paying attention to it, so it became something of a badge of honor. Schools started following the lead of Harvard and a few other places, and suddenly you had departments named special collections.”
In Albany’s case, that happened in 1971. The Grenander name was added on in 1996 after Mary Elizabeth Grenander, a former English professor there, made a sizable donation to the university.
“UAlbany was a small liberal arts college in 1962, and then it underwent a huge transition,” said Williams, who joined the University Library in 1987. “The student body grew from 2,000 to 10,000 by 1970, and the faculty changed enormously at that time, with plenty of new members to handle the changing and expanding situation at Albany. Because of all this change happening, there was an impetus to create an archive and save as much of the history of the school as they could.”
Now, the Department of Special Collections and Archives includes many items not directly related to the college, such as union records of the IUE-CWA Local 301 throughout its long history at the General Electric Co. in Schenectady. History professor Gerald Zahavi began putting together the collection when he started his career at UAlbany in 1985. Keough, who has a master’s degree in history from UAlbany, was a student of Zahavi’s.
“I studied under him as a grad student, so I knew he had a lot of information on GE and its union affairs,” remembered Keough. “When I started working here, he was one of the first people I reached out to. All of his collection was in the basement of the history department, where nobody else could use it and where it wasn’t really safe. Now people can check out the collection on our website and use our finding aids to see what we have. If they want, they can come here and we’ll have it out on a table waiting for them, but they can also find a lot of those items online now.”
Many of the personal papers of Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Kennedy are a part of the collection, as are the papers of former Democratic Congressman Michael McNulty and anti-death penalty advocate David Baldus, a law professor at the University of Iowa who died just last year. Along with preserving the actual papers and other ephemera, Keough and his staff, which includes four paid employees and a dozen or so interns and volunteers, are busy putting all of that material on the department’s website.
“We’re in the process of digitizing a lot of our papers and our photographs collection,” said Keough. “And, if the original isn’t on paper, how do we best preserve it? That’s another big issue that’s being addressed at professional conferences around the world and with semester-long courses. How do we utilize the new technology to best preserve our collections?”
It’s also a big question at other Capital Region college campuses where special collections departments can range from being rather extensive, such as Union College, which was formed in 1795, to Schenectady County Community College, which opened in 1969.
At Union, the most prized possession is a full set of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” purchased by former college president Eliphalet Nott from Audubon himself in 1844. Among the many other items at Union’s Schaffer Library are the Dudley Observatory Rare Books Collection and the original drawings of the college campus by French architect Joseph Jacque Ramee.
The Siena College Department of Special Collections has a number of historical writings on religion from the 17th and 18th century, as well as a 1691 edition of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost, a Poem in Twelve Books.”
At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where the emphasis is on science and technology, the papers of Washington A. Roebling, builder of the Brooklyn Bridge, are among that collection’s highlights.
At Skidmore College, the collection includes the Norman Fox book collection and several manuscript collections, including the personal papers of college founder Lucy Scribner and World War II relief effort worker Elizabeth F. Adams.
The College of Saint Rose owns the personal papers of Albany businessman and philanthropist Neil Hellman, while Russell Sage’s archives include the Carol Ann Donohue Memorial Collection of 20th Century English Language Poetry.
Hudson Valley Community College, Fulton-Montgomery Community College and SCCC, all relatively new institutions, have smaller special collections departments that pertain mostly to the school’s history. At SCCC, the material includes the story of the Van Curler Hotel, now part of the campus, and information on the General Electric site.
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