Northwestern’s storied past and the archivists who preserve it.

Designed by Gabrielle Rabon

The thousands of files, boxes and bins that fill the University Archives are a treasure trove of Northwestern artifacts. From a mud-stained purple 1904 football jersey to grainy photographs of 1960s dorm parties in an unchanged Bobb-McCulloch Hall, no part of the Wildcats’ 168-year history is neglected.

The scale of the archives’ entire operation is difficult to comprehend. Though the department is based in Deering Library’s quiet basement, this office holds only a fraction of the whole collection. Unbeknownst to most Northwestern students, the archives’ second on-campus location, a 321-aisle stacks-like library, is housed in a secure, temperature-controlled room beneath East and West Fairchild. It doesn’t stop there though — any remaining items are stored in a small part of the Oak Grove Library Center, a massive 25,000-square-foot storage facility in nearby Waukegan, Illinois.

University Archivist Kevin Leonard estimates that if you lined up the University’s entire collection box-by-box starting at Weber Arch, it would form a procession over four miles long winding up Sheridan Road.

Leonard first stepped onto campus as a history major in 1973. At Northwestern, he worked as a student assistant in the archives, copying documents and helping out in any way he could. After working an office job in downtown Chicago, he returned to Evanston as a full-time employee in the archives just two and a half years after graduation. He’s since helped spearhead the direction and management of the University’s collection for 39 years.

“You’ve never grown up and said, ‘Mom, I want to be an archivist,’” Leonard admits. “[But] it has been a blessing to work here … I tend to look backward instead of forward. I enjoy learning about the past.”

For Leonard, the opportunity to peek into the past is what’s most captivating about working in the archives. The records and documents in the University’s collection offer a window into a different world — at the people and places that came before.
“I think a knowledge of the past makes you a better-informed citizen in the present,” he says.

Assistant University Archivist Janet Olson echoes this sentiment, saying the archives give people perspective and context. “You need to learn that there was something that happened before you, that there was some way the things that happen today started to happen,” Olson says.

The unique power of the archives is to lend a direct and tangible connection to history, rather than a filtered one.

“You can read it in books, but when you touch the actual [documents] … it gets the mind going,” Olson says.

The archives’ collection of student scrapbooks from the 1880s to the 1940s are some of Olson’s favorite items. A vibrant collage of newspaper clippings, movie tickets, brochures, photos and handwritten notes tell the stories of former Northwestern students’ experiences in Evanston.

“I think a knowledge of the past makes you a better-informed citizen in the present.”

Over the past 20 years, the development of new technologies, coupled with Northwestern’s financial investment, has changed the archives’ potential. Though they are principally concerned with the past, these efforts work toward cementing the collection’s relevance and increasing its possibilities in the present and for the future to come.

As Olson remarks: “[We are taking archives] out of the basement and onto the front page.”

For many years, the popular perception of archives was of an exclusive gate-keeper culture, which, Olson jokes, was portrayed by a “gnome-like archivist who begrudgingly provided access to dusty files.”

“Of course, this was never completely true,” Olson says, “but there were a lot of circumstances that made it seem that way.”

Today, digital interfaces have helped make archival materials more accessible and organized than ever before. Carolyn Caizzi, the head of the library’s Repository and Digital Curation department, is at the forefront of this effort.

Equipped with cutting-edge machines like the Quartz A1 digital scanner, Caizzi and her staff dispel the image of Olson’s archetypal “gnome” archivist.

“Archives are active,” Caizzi says. “Digitization gets them into the hands of more people.”

Rather than sit stagnant on a shelf in Evanston, the rare books, photographs and other University documents are accessible to a virtually unlimited audience around the world. Olson believes this collaborative effort between researcher and archivist is fundamental to the value of archival materials.

“My job isn’t to know everything, but it is to know where everything is,” Olson says. “It’s up to the researcher to put the puzzle pieces together.”

By offering researchers more “puzzle pieces,” archivists and technicians like Olson, Leonard and Caizzi hope to create more chances for people to form new connections, make new discoveries and find new perspectives on Northwestern’s past.

“We’re giving [these documents] another life. That’s what we’re doing here,” Caizzi says.