When History major Buddy Martin started his internship with the Special Collections & Archives Research Center spring term 2013 he wanted to learn more about campus history, hone his research and writing skills, and hang out with archivists. His project was a formidable task: to create a short “OSU History Highlights” presentation on OSU’s nearly 150 year history for SCARC staff to add to our outreach toolkit. This blog post is a reflection on his work and some of his “lessons learned.”
Any historian and/or history buff who is worth his/her salt will tell you of the importance of something that is old.
A document meticulously maintained, an old black and white photo carefully stored, or an artifact vacuumed sealed to preserve it. A picture (or document, or artifact, take your pick) tells a thousand words. I learned these things almost intimately during my time in the archives this past spring term. But there was one key element that I wasn’t told — I had to actually read and understand those thousand words.
When I started my internship I knew nothing about OSU. Sure I knew that it was established in 1868 (I have a sweatshirt with that very thing printed on it), the school colors were orange and black, and the school mascot was, in fact, a beaver. But my knowledge ended there. As far as I was concerned, I was attending an old land grant university in Oregon. But as I began to work on the university’s history a new level of the understanding opened up to me. Sure, I had to read the near illegible scrawl of long dead presidents and scribes but I could start to see how the school changed over time. I recognized names dotted on the buildings around campus and learned interesting factoids about the buildings I had classes in. I could even imagine how drastically different the campus was only a hundred years before. All these things opened up to me during my short time working in the archives.
However, at its most fundamental level, history is the study of human beings. How they lived and the decisions they made may seem trivial to some, but to me they reflect people living today. I came across a deal between President Kerr and the Pinkertons (a private detective agency) to “discover” any students suspected of illegal drinking. The detective found no evidence of drinking, of course, but it was actually something an irritated president Kerr claimed was still happening under his nose! Despite their bickering this exchange is interesting because it details the lives of the students and the internal workings of a campus. What was even more fascinating to me was that these students’ lives were, for the most part, rather mundane. They counted down the days until winter break, they complained about the food, and in one instance there was petty theft (over a matter of $30). To me this serves to humanize the students and put into perspective their lives in comparison to my own.
And in the end is that not one of the fundamental goals of historians?