Following the U’s paper trail

There are hundreds of thousands of books, manuscripts and artifacts stored in the two caverns 83 feet below the University’s Andersen Library.

Director of University Archives Elisabeth Kaplan opens a drawer of old photos and blueprints Friday afternoon in the storage level of Elmer L Anderson Library. The storage level is 90 feet below the surface where the temperature and humidity are controlled for preservation purposes.

Director of University Archives Elisabeth Kaplan opens a drawer of old photos and blueprints Friday afternoon in the storage level of Elmer L Anderson Library. The storage level is 90 feet below the surface where the temperature and humidity are controlled for preservation purposes.

Jennifer Bissell

While at war with Japan in 1942, the United States forced thousands of Japanese-Americans into internment camps throughout the West. Writer Paul Taylor and photographer Dorothea Lange set out to document the migration but were quickly bombarded with censorship from the U.S. government.
Using messages Taylor sent back to his editor, University of Minnesota assistant archivist Linnea Anderson has assembled a theory of what happened during that time and how the governmentâÄôs censorship affected TaylorâÄôs work.
âÄúThereâÄôs always something new to look at,âÄù Anderson said. âÄúItâÄôs like solving a mystery.âÄù
The letters Anderson used are among the hundreds of thousands of books, manuscripts and artifacts stored in the two caverns 83 feet below the UniversityâÄôs Andersen Library.
Ranging from 4,000-year-old Babylonian clay tablets to the original illustrations for Tomie dePaola childrenâÄôs books, the archives allow University faculty, students and the general public to find primary resources on thousands of subjects.
In caverns along the Mississippi River, 1.4 million books and 93,000 cubic feet for archived storage fill the space to near-capacity.
Several libraries and collections use the space including University Archives, which collects University minutes, memos, films and photographs documenting University life and policy.
Using the University Archives for the first time Monday, University junior Kelly Clausen said the archives were unlike any resource she had used before.
âÄúSome of them are handwritten notes from the person IâÄôm studying,âÄù Clausen said. âÄúItâÄôs kind of cool. It makes you feel more a part of the history.âÄù
Clausen visited the archives for a project on Wesley Spink, one of the first clinical faculty members at the UniversityâÄôs Medical School. The library helped her find three boxes full of documents related to Spink.
âÄúItâÄôs not just researching something that you read on the computer,âÄù she said. âÄúYou can actually hold it and see it and be like, âÄòWow! This person wrote this.âÄôâÄù  
University Archives Director Elisabeth Kaplan said the University Archives are different from other collections since it isnâÄôt necessarily the materials themselves that are valuable like a rare book is, but rather the information the materials hold.
Kaplan said material that could be saved for the archives is often overlooked. In fact, it wasnâÄôt until the UniversityâÄôs 100-year anniversary in 1951 that the University started to save its materials seriously. Researchers began gathering materials for the centennial in 1947 but quickly saw there wasnâÄôt much to show without better archival efforts.
Now with the breadth of materials the University has, Kaplan said the archives often are resources for administrators when making decisions such as whether to close a college or program.
âÄúIf you work here long enough, you realize that things come around again and again,âÄù Kaplan said. âÄúWhen the General College closed [in 2006], that was like the fourth time it had been suggested âĦ [there were] all kinds of task forces and committees to study.âÄù
Roaming the caverns, Kaplan reached for a box of documents dated back to 1874, during William Watts FolwellâÄôs tenure as the UniversityâÄôs first president.
Sifting through handwritten notes on pieces of scratch paper, Kaplan said she guessed they were from the president picking which courses the University would teach.
âÄúItâÄôs amazing when you look at some of these things,âÄù Kaplan said. âÄúItâÄôs like, this is what the University taught. I mean, thereâÄôs so few courses and so few people.âÄù
The missing paper trail
As more researchers begin to expect materials online, University archivists have increased efforts to digitize and catalog items online.
This has led to a number of projects including the Memorial Stadium and Weismann Art Museum projects.
With the excitement of football returning to campus, University Archives put together a website commemorating the Memorial Stadium, which served campus from 1924 to 1992. The website posts construction reports, old photos of teams and records of fansâÄô efforts to save the old stadium.
The archivists even set up a booth during the Minnesota State Fair for community members to comment on the website with memories of their first game and meetings with future spouses there.
In February archivists began working on a similar project accompanying the expansion of the Weisman Art Museum.
The archivists plan to process more than 180 boxes of archival materials from as early as the 1930s and blog about the process along the way.
But while these kinds of projects can be exciting, Anderson said that when working with archived material, archivists will find the information is rarely complete. Responses to letters may be missing, or materials werenâÄôt saved simply because people didnâÄôt think to save them.
With the onset of the Internet, the potential to lose even more information is an imminent danger.
âÄúSometimes you can get a personal glimpse of someone in a letter,âÄù Anderson said. âÄúThereâÄôs the official letter, but then somebody will scrawl something on it. And a lot of this is lost now because we e-mail, we chat, we text and we Facebook each other.âÄù
Anderson said she appreciates what she called âÄúthe personal feeling when a letter is all folded up or someone got mad, and they crumbled it up and then smoothed it out again.âÄù
But Anderson said she isnâÄôt worried about the future of archives.
People will always need to keep records and even some paperless offices have software to indicate what documents should be saved, Anderson said.
âÄúSometimes I joke with people [that] this is going to be one of the last professions where youâÄôre still handling pieces of paper,âÄù Anderson said. âÄúA hundred years from now the archivists will still have pieces of paper because these things will still be important.âÄù