University Archives: home to jewels of campus history

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs


Top: Bill Roberts, recently retired university archivist, shows off some original campus architectural drawings that are part of the collection.
Peg Skorpinski photo

16 January 2002 | The 7th floor of the Bancroft Library holds some amazing jewels of university history — stacked floor to ceiling, in gray cardboard boxes.

Box CU-472, for example, holds the football used in the first game ever played at Memorial Stadium, in 1923. In CU-5 are documents describing the creation and implementation of the controversial Loyalty Oath. CU-435 contains turn-of-the-century diplomas, beautifully hand-written in Latin, as was the custom at the time.

Property of the University Archives, these artifacts tell the story of the birth and growth of the Berkeley campus.

“We have records dating back to 1855 from the College of California, which was the precursor to UC Berkeley,” said Bill Roberts, who recently retired after 16 years as university archivist. “These include the official correspondence outlining the transfer of property to what is now the Berkeley campus.”

The archive is a treasure trove of information, mined not only by those on campus, but by scholars from around the world. Those who dig deep enough into the boxes are likely to find gems.

Doing just that, one woman recently hit the jackpot, Roberts says. Researching how college curriculums were changed by the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, she contacted the archivist for information about Berkeley’s holdings. With access to old academic senate records, departmental meeting minutes and course catalogs, she tracked the evolution of Berkeley’s course offerings since that era.

Official records
Paper documents comprise the bulk of the archive and include official records from the UC Office of the President, the chancellor’s office, the academic senate and individual departments and units, Roberts says.

While paper documents are an invaluable resource, the archive’s “miscellaneous” items are the true show-stoppers; they make up a unique physical record of the university’s past.

A collection of more than 25,000 photographic prints, for instance, chronicles nearly every facet of campus life throughout the ages. The university’s first graduating class (a group of men known as the “Twelve Apostles”), Big Game bonfires, the Free Speech Movement, and a visit by President John F. Kennedy are among the historic moments captured in the collection.

The archive is also home to four Oski heads; a collection of traditional felt hats or “plugs” worn by junior men for about four decades beginning in the 1870s; and hundreds of handbills, announcing such events as a meeting of the “Campanile Communists,” a 1930s-era student group, or a campus visit by Black Panther Bobby Seale in the early 1970s.

As university archivist, Roberts receives calls on every subject under the sun, but some topics come up time and time again. One of the most popular, the campus architecture, prompts several inquiries each year, he says. With nearly 5,000 architectural drawings on hand, he can easily fill the requests.

And thanks to a recent grant, the archive now has dozens of original drawings by renowned architect John Galen Howard, who designed Doe Library, Hearst Memorial Mining Building, Memorial Stadium and numerous other campus structures.

Finding time to catalog
In addition to fielding requests from scholars and members of the public — some calling to find out if their grandmother graduated from Berkeley or their great uncle was on the faculty — the archivist must also find time to catalog incoming items.

“Frequently, alumni bequeath mementos from their time on campus,” Roberts says. “We get yearbooks, photos, sorority or fraternity pins, hats and scrapbooks.”

If there is such a thing as an unusual item, one is a 92-year-old, handmade leather stadium cushion, complete with blue and gold “UC” logo and long fringe, sent by the grandson of a former Cal rugby player.

“From a research point of view, this piece isn’t that helpful,” says Roberts, “but it’s fun to look at these kinds of things.”

Knowing what to keep and what to dispose of is one of the most challenging duties of an archivist, he says. Because space is at a premium, determining what might be accessed in the future is crucial.

“People are always perplexed to see me at the dumpster throwing things out,” Roberts says. “They assume an archivist’s job is to keep things, not toss them away.”
While making these decisions is tough, archivists now face an even more daunting question — how to capture and organize electronic files which, in many cases, have replaced paper documents.

“Should we be trying to keep web site information?” he asks. “How do we comb through the enormous amount of e-mail that has been generated? How will this information be stored? What future technologies will be available to retrieve this data?

“These are the questions archivists and the university itself must start trying to answer.”


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