He's Mr.Campus History

University Archivist Bill Roberts Is Named Distinguished Librarian

by Julia Sommer

"Interesting stuff and interesting people" are the two main reasons Bill Roberts loves his job as university archivist-only the fourth person to hold this post since UC was founded in 1868.

Working at the Bancroft Library since 1966, where the archives are located, Roberts will be honored Nov. 20 by the Librarians Association of UC-Berkeley with the Distinguished Librarian Award for 1996-97.

Says Peter Hanff, deputy director of Bancroft: "An amazing thing about Bill Roberts is not only his vast knowledge of the content of Bancroft's large and complex collections, but his habit of constantly exploring parts of the collections he has never before encountered. That knowledge makes him an intimidating colleague, but one who is always ready to help in tracking down the most obscure items for a researcher or a colleague."

The university archivist is charged with gathering, conserving, cataloging and making available anything to do with the university's history. At the moment, Roberts estimates this includes 20,000 volumes, 25,000 photos, 4,000 architectural drawings, and a linear mile of records-not to mention artifacts like the football from the 1923 Big Game, junior "plug" hats from the turn of the century, a 1914 baseball uniform, and Clothilde Grunsky's 1915 University Medal, delivered in person by Grunsky when she was in her 90s.

The archives also houses yearbooks, catalogs and regents' records covering the past 130 years, President John F. Kennedy's autographed speech from Charter Day 1962, student scrapbooks, correspondence of UC presidents and chancellors, and the papers of well-known faculty, such as 1939 Nobelist Ernest O. Lawrence. From 1993 to 1996, Roberts also served as acting curator of Bancroft's History of Science Manuscript Collections.

All this "interesting stuff" takes up about 3,500 square feet on the seventh tier of Bancroft, a dim warren packed with UC memorabilia, and an almost equal space at the library's Richmond Field Station storage facility. Bancroft users may request any of it to examine in the reading room.

For instance, UC president emeritus Clark Kerr is currently using the Archives to write his memoirs. Members of the public have requested UC president's office records involving the use of radiation on human subjects. Native Americans frequently consult the Ethnological Documents Collection in reclaiming their history and language.

Since 1991, Roberts has also served as acting curator for Bancroft's Pictorial Collections, numbering about 3 l/2 million images. With a $350,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he supervised the recently completed California Heritage Project, which involved digitizing 25,000 images for the web (http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/calheritage/).

Another grant has funded a physical survey of the collection-mainly photos, but also daguerreotypes, lithographs and paintings-resulting in catalog records for 3,300 pictorial collections.

One of Roberts' big accomplishments has been getting archives material catalogued and online as part of GLADIS, the Berkeley online catalog. Before, only the archivist knew where to find all that interesting stuff. Researchers had to know to ask.

There hasn't been much turnover in university archivists. In 1874, President Gilman ordered a university archives be established. The legendary Joseph C. Rowell was archivist from 1874 to 1938. After World War II, May Dornin, who had worked for Rowell, took over. In 1964, UC President Clark Kerr ordered that archives be established on each campus "for the preservation of permanently valuable historical records"; Jim Kantor took over the post at Berkeley. When Kantor retired in 1983, Roberts, who had been a librarian at Bancroft since 1966, became archivist.

One of the more interesting collections started by Rowell in the 1930s was the Sather Gate handbill collection. In those days, Sather Gate marked the edge of campus, and students espousing political views had to do so off campus-just outside Sather Gate. That mandate ended with the Free Speech Movement in 1964, which in turn produced an abundance of handbills for the collection. "We haven't added much since the '70s," Roberts says.

Born in San Francisco, Roberts grew up in San Leandro and Pleasant Hill. He received his BA from San Jose State University in 1961, then came to Berkeley-first as a graduate student in French and romance philology (MA '63), then as a library assistant at Bancroft and finally as a library student (MLA '68).

Roberts' sonorous baritone is familiar to thousands of people both on and off campus who phone the archives for bits of university history (he sings with the Faculty Club Monks Chorus). So is his wry sense of humor and good-natured exasperation at his never-ending backlog of work.

Kathleen Vanden Heuvel, chair of the Distinguished Librarian Award Committee and a librarian at the School of Law, has written of Roberts: "In an era that often ignores the long, historical connection librar-ianship has to preserving the past as well as making the immediate present understandable and accessible, it is really a pleasure to present this award to a librarian who has such a strong connection to the past and future of librarianship."



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