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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, May 25, 2024

Digital Collections and Archives brings rich, complex history of Tufts to life


Tucked away on the G Floor of Tisch Library is the office of Tufts' Digital Collections and Archives (DCA), which manages over five terabytes of data and a collection of physical records that would stretch for about two miles if it were laid out in a straight line. In addition to preserving university records, the DCA is also the archival home to papers of prominent individuals in American history, like broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, and key members of the Tufts community, like former trustee Vannevar Bush (A 1913). The DCA also houses materials from organizations such as the Center for Health, Environment and Justice led by Love Canal activists Lois Gibbs (H '13) and Stephen Lester.

Pamela Hopkins, public services and outreach archivist at the DCA, explained that the DCA exists not only to collect the university's records, but also to support education at Tufts on a broader scale.

"One of the beauties of the [DCA] is that ... we do actually seek out collections to support the teaching and research needs of our students and staff. ... These are important collections out there that we brought in that … also speak to a broader community engagement," Hopkins said.

The DCA's collections do not just sit unused and sealed away in storage boxes with the assistance of Hopkins and her colleagues. With the assistance of Hopkins and her colleagues, faculty and students engage with a variety of archival material through carefully planned lessons and independent research projects.

"Archives traditionally can be seen as a sort of opaque place, or even if you know you can go and use the archives, it's not really clear what you have to do and their procedures … and that can be intimidating, especially for students who haven't done archival research. We try to remove as [many] of [the barriers] as we can," Daniel Santamaria, DCA director and university archivist, said. "That's been a big focus of the last few years."

In recent years, the DCA has worked closely with Ninian Stein, a lecturer in environmental studies, to incorporate the use of archival material into every single one of Stein's classes at Tufts, including Introduction to Environmental Studies.

"One of the goals with [Introduction to Environmental Studies] is to enmesh students in the history of Tufts. They learn ... not only about this environment, but to understand that this is a place that is situated within an environment that has changed over time," Stein said.

In many of her classes, Stein uses the Lois Gibbs and Center for Health, Environment and Justice papers  donated to Tufts by Gibbs and Lester  for students to learn from a real-life environmental issue.

"It's very rare to have people who've donated their collections to an archive be as actively engaged as Stephen [Lester] and Lois [Gibbs] are they come to speak at Tufts at least once a semester," Stein said. "Not only is it a wonderful resource, it's got both ... living memory and historic written record at the same time."

Students work with materials as varied as letters to the editor on the Love Canal tragedy, fundraising tally sheets and photographs of Love Canal residents with visiting politicians that were used to publicize the environmental disaster, according to Hopkins.

"It's really allowing the students to act as proper researchers, like actual historians and sociologists looking at this material, seeing how you can take these raw materials and create a narrative that's a valid narrative, a true narrative, but also showing that there are different narratives that can be explored by different people at different times for different purposes. It was a really powerful opportunity for the students and for me to see them at work," Hopkins said.

Stein also sees immense value in getting her environmental studies students to work with DCA materials relating to the landscape and environment of Tufts' campus and the surrounding communities of Medford and Somerville. This includes having her students work with materials such as photographs of the former reservoir on land that is now the Residential Quad.

"You have to start where you [are], and it's great to work with what's around you," Stein said. "I'm making the argument in many of my classes that if we understand the past of the landscape around us, wherever we go and wherever we work in our future, we're better prepared to manage that landscape for the future."

Senior Charlotte Leis, an applied environmental studies major, said she has had an eye-opening experience working with archival material in her many classes with Stein. Leis noted the educational value of developing one's own interpretations of primary sources, rather than just reading someone else's secondary research.

"[Stein] really does try to make it not just the papers and not just the archival material, but show how it's still present and relevant," Leis said. "[Another] thing that [Stein] always mentions is, well, there was history before the archives. The archives are great but they're not all-encompassing."

The educational value of an archive, Santamaria noted, rests upon the ability for individuals to interpret the same archival material in vastly different ways.

"That's why we keep archives, because we believe that it helps people make better decisions and helps the university become a better place," he said. "Everyone has their own biases, so it's not like these are neutral documents, but it's good evidence of what happened so the best archives can be checks against prevailing narratives."

Stein said she hopes that, after taking her classes, students will be empowered to continue using archival material and engaging with archives in their academic and professional careers.

"One of the things that is so important about getting undergraduates to archives and to libraries in general ... is breaking that barrier of entering the place, of understanding what the rules [are] and how the place works, for the first time as soon as possible and as early in your career, so that you can feel comfortable there and can return for the sorts of deeper engagement that can be possible as you move forward in your undergraduate or graduate career," Stein said. "I'm hoping if my students go on and work in environmental fields that someday they'll think about, 'How are people going to remember these things that we've done in our careers? How can we avoid reinventing the wheel?’"

Another faculty member with whom the DCA has closely collaborated is Virginia Drachman, the Arthur and Lenore Stern Professor of American History. While Drachman uses archival material in all her classes, she also regularly teaches a research seminar, titled "Tufts in American History," where students conduct independent research that culminates in a paper exploring an aspect of Tufts history of their own choosing.

"It's important for my students to … understand that everything has a history; Tufts has a history, and students have a history," Drachman said. "The notion is that what's happening in the country is having an impact on campus. What's happening on campus is reflecting what's going on in the country."

"[The students] are discovering things about university history, uncovering narratives and identifying nuances," Hopkins added. "They're unearthing different narratives, they're finding different points of view in those narratives, and they're bringing their own experience to unpack those narratives — it's amazing and powerful."

The idea for a seminar focused on Tufts' history came about due to the limitations that Drachman and her students faced in using archival material at other institutions, including the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard University.

"As an American historian and a women's historian, I've had the Schlesinger Library, and I've always introduced my students … to that repository. And then I realized, they can only go there once or twice in the semester; let's take this idea of the importance of archives and primary documents and look right in our backyard," she said.

Senior Daniel Goldstein, a history major enrolled in Drachman's seminar last fall, wrote about the pivotal role that former University President John Albert Cousens had in steering Tufts through the Great Depression. Goldstein was inspired by "An Entrepreneurial University," a book authored by Sol Gittleman (H '10), former provost and university professor emeritus, which argued that Tufts as an institution "came to life" in the 70s and 80s under the leadership of former University President Jean Mayer.

"I thought that was too simple to be true. Surely, there have been ... important players who shaped the direction of Tufts beyond just Jean Mayer," Goldstein said. "So ... let me look at a time period where I expect there to be a particularly interesting leadership challenge, which I think the Great Depression is  how do you run any kind of institution during that national time period?"

By reading old copies of the university's Alumni Bulletin stored in the DCA, Goldstein concluded that, under Cousens' business-minded leadership, the university was still able to increase its revenue from donations even in an period of economic decay.

"I found that there really, if anything, wasn't much concern for the Great Depression, for the stock market crash. If anything, the university was asking for more money from its patrons and had no shame in doing so," he said.

The story of Cousens at the helm of the university is not one that is commonly heard of and could only be discerned by closely interpreting archival material, Goldstein says.

"Why you don't really hear about [Cousens] is because it's not a flashy story, because it wasn't necessarily exceptional, but it was exceptional given the circumstances. It's a harder story to tell; you're kind of telling two stories at once," he said.

Goldstein gave credit to the staff of the DCA, especially Hopkins, for keeping the collections accessible and well-organized.

"The resources are organized ... very, very well ... It's very easy to find something that you are looking for. There was a lot of material that's all really well-digitized. The things that are kept in person within the center are in great condition, very accessible; anything that was hidden away, people were very willing to help find it," Goldstein said.

The experience of uncovering a little-known part of Tufts history meant a lot to Goldstein.

"It's a rare opportunity to actually advance understanding and research in a ... way [that is related] to one's own experience," Goldstein said. "Just given that we have access to these archives, I think it had to be Tufts history that was the place [and] the site of work."

Hopkins added that all students, regardless of their major, should have a greater awareness of the often complicated history of their own university.

"You're paying for an education, you came to Tufts for a reason, and I think it helps to inform your experience here to have a sense of the past history of the place, good and bad. There's a lot here for every student in every discipline, and I think everyone should do primary-source research," Hopkins said.

Drachman spoke to the essential role that the DCA plays for Tufts as an institution, beyond its educational value.

"[The DCA] is critical for memory," Drachman said. "It's important for people who ... appreciate [and] respect history to understand the university in its broader context, beyond simply physical boundaries of the school. I think it's a way to build connections [between] different generations who have been here."

Still, the task of maintaining and expanding the DCA will never be complete, as Hopkins, Santamaria and their colleagues work to fill in gaps in the archives with a greater plethora of student voices, including student organizations' records.

"Archives aren't neutral we only have what we have, and what people are willing to give us. It's important to interrogate and unpack silences in the archives. It's important to … think about who's not being represented. And that in part fuels our desire to bring in more student voices, to record more student voices, to make this a space where students feel comfortable sharing their voices, because documenting life on the Hill is a critical part of our mission," Hopkins said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to Tisch Library G Floor as the Tisch Library basement and misidentified the Tufts University Archives as the Tisch Archives in the caption for its photo. The article has been updated to reflect these changes. The Daily regrets these errors.