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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, June 15, 2024

A snapshot from the past: Tufts Archival Research Center and Special Collections

TARC and Special Collections speak to their role at Tufts.


A 1778 illustration of a solar eclipse is pictured, left, and a cartoon of Tufts football is pictured, right.

Venturing deep into the basement of Tisch Library, you will find Tufts Archival Research Center, also known as TARC. Its collection exceeds 12,000 boxes of material, from the founding of the university in 1852 to the present day. Director of TARC Dan Santamaria explained TARC’s role on campus and beyond.

We’re the steward of archival collections at Tufts. We also have collections that are not necessarily created at Tufts but are designed to support teaching and learning in various subject areas,” Santamaria said. “We [specialize in] social and environmental justice, broadcast journalism, … Boston area arts and performing arts and Boston area medical history.”

TARC’s research is split 50/50 with half spent on Tufts’ University history while the other half looks to broaden the research in TARC’s specialized subject areas. Furthermore, they support all Tufts University libraries, including the School of Dental Medicine and School of Medicine. 

It is important to note that the Tisch Library Special Collections and TARC are two separate entities. While seemingly similar at first glance, a few distinct differences set the pair apart from each other.

TARC is its individual unit, answering to the Office of the Provost and receiving authorization from the Board of Trustees, whereas Special Collections falls under the Research and Learning division in Tisch Library.

Special Collections assistant Olivia Olafsson highlighted the purpose of their work.

We are more interested in the rare books aspect of the library,” Olafsson said. “We collect published materials, many premodern manuscripts, and we are trying to create more of a rare books program that includes printing.”

Head of Special Collections Christopher Barbour explained that the biggest difference between the two is their focus on published versus unpublished materials.

“Often, but not exclusively, archives are focused on non-published material,” Barbour wrote in an email to the Daily. “Archival and book collections present certain common concerns (rarity, security, environmental conditions) while having differing practices in organizing and cataloging material.”

Santamaria further explained what makes TARC unique.

“What we have are archival collections, which you can think of as the raw material that people are producing as they’re doing their work or living their lives,” Santamaria said. “Things like correspondence, email these days [or] files that they keep as they’re doing their research.”

He went on to add that TARC focuses on the “raw data that people work with” whereas Special Collections are primarily concerned with rare books.

For example, Special Collections has medieval manuscripts dating all the way back to the 13th century, and TARC houses the infamous Jumbo’s tail! When staff from both were asked about their favorite, finding an answer was a bit tricky.

Barbour pointed to the discovery of a 14th-century manuscript that was hidden from view and had gone years without being cataloged.

“For a discovery it would be hard to top the first medieval manuscript I found on a shelf of uncatalogued books, a 14th-century psalter and hymnal,” Barbour wrote. “At the time it was assumed everything was catalogued (which the state of that shelf told me was not the case), and that we had no medieval material.”

He also noted a book acquired at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair that he had anticipated would be gone but to his surprise was still available for purchase when he arrived days later.

“We acquired a book with beautiful illustrations of the first solar eclipse recorded at sea, in 1778,” he wrote. “Given the imminent arrival of the eclipse on Monday after the fair, I assumed it would be snapped up at the Thursday evening preview, long before I arrived. … Perhaps the earthquake in New York on Friday morning distracted people from thinking so much about the eclipse.”

Alexandra Bush, the public services and instruction archivist at TARC, explained that her favorites depend on what’s come in.

“​​As a reference person, my favorite thing changes periodically, depending on how excitedly people react to something that I show them,” Bush said. “But I will never get tired of looking at photos of students from bygone eras. ’80s hairstyles, ’70s hairstyles, 1930s hairstyles. We’ve got it all. … It is so fascinating to see people change.”

The biggest messages from Special Collections and TARC were accessibility, student involvement and the importance of preserving these records. Both have drop-in hours and are accessible by class and appointment.

I really want to get more students and faculty involved in Special Collections, especially now that we have a space to hold classes and do printing,” Olafson said. “We’re here to support you on research projects. … Any of our items can be called up for viewing and we also put on a lot of events for the Tufts community that includes printing or bookbinding workshops or lectures with students and faculty members.”

Santamaria shared a similar sentiment, hoping to contribute to students’ learning experience.

We’re always working to remove as many of those barriers as we can. I feel like we’re in a pretty good place in terms of [having] published descriptions of just about all of our collections on the website. We’re always looking to digitize as much material as we can to remove some of those barriers for people who can’t always physically come here,” Santamaria said.

Olafson described how Special Collections seeks to expand the diversity of its holdings.

“I want to continue to grow our collection, which is a very fun part of the job, and I hope to grow the collection in a direction that reflects our increasingly diverse student body,” Olafson said.

Santamaria emphasized how student involvement can help the archives capture the breadth of campus life, especially through fostering relationships with student organizations.

“We’re always working to build as full and inclusive a picture of Tufts as we can,” Santamaria said, “and that includes … trying to document what students are really thinking about — both learning in a classroom and then outside of formal academic settings — and what their lives are like.” 

So if you have a spare moment, a twinge or a curiosity for something old, swing on by the Special Collections and Archives. They will gladly welcome you with open arms!