U Archives home to forgotten treasures

by K. Cameron

Should the heretofore dormant tectonic plates underneath the University decide to revolt against geological convention and stage a massive earthquake, Penelope Krosch will know exactly where to go.
As the head of the University Archives, she knows the immense underground caverns of the Andersen Library — home to 150 years of University yearbooks, documents, photographs and assorted junk — were designed to withstand such a freak natural disaster.
Rest assured, the photo of the 1902 University Glee Club will be preserved for generations to come.
As will the reel-to-reels of old Radio K broadcasts, the manuscript poems of Pulitzer prize-winning poet and former University faculty member John Berryman and a pile of homecoming buttons from years past.
For Krosch, who has presided over the archives for more than 10 years, every day provides educational surprises.
“Going through old files is kind of like taking a survey course,” she explains. “By the time you’re done with them, you learn a lot about the field.
“Right now I’m going through a lot of old surgery files and learning a lot about old practices.
“I had forgotten how much surgeons were involved in the original research for cancer cures. Before we knew anything about chemotherapy, the only answer to cure cancer was to cut it out,” she said.
If digging through archive documents is a revealing experience, it is also a chilly one, given the 50-degree temperature needed to aid the preservation of the 1,038 collections stored in the building.
“I had to go to Goodwill and buy some sweat shirts for my staff just so they wouldn’t have to drag their jackets to work during the summer,” Krosch joked.
Walking through the facilities, Krosch is quick to rattle off statistics that demonstrate her knowledge of the job. Pointing to the endless rows of files, she explains, “If you were to stack all of the boxes in here end-to-end, you could walk on them all the way to the St. Paul campus.”
Most people use the archives for research projects, Krosch said. This year’s sesquicentennial celebration has brought an onslaught of researchers compiling elements of University history.
Another popular use of the archives is genealogical research — people coming in to find out about ancestors who attended the University.
“Sometimes we can tell them quite a bit,” said Krosch. “Sometimes we have to tell them that they never went here at all.”
Krosch is no foreigner to the occasional strange request. “We’ve gotten several calls from people looking for Custer’s dog, which apparently was given to someone in Minneapolis. I’ve had to direct them to look elsewhere.”
Even without Custer’s dog, there is plenty of material to keep Krosch busy every day. So, until that earthquake destroys the University’s capacity to create storable information, Krosch will be filing it away in the caverns deep beneath the West Bank.
Wearing a sweat shirt, of course.