David McCartney, University of Iowa Libraries
Protecting memories of the University’s good old days used to be a matter of gathering yearbooks and copies of the Daily Iowan, along with photos, brochures, catalogs, and the like. Today much of the information faculty, staff, and students glean about life at The University of Iowa can be found online: minutes to meetings; fyi, the faculty-staff newsletter; even the General Catalog. All this means that collecting and preserving information about the life of the University is an increasingly complex job for University archivist David McCartney.
McCartney shares with fyi the challenges and pleasures of preserving the University’s past and keeping it accessible for researchers in the future.
What constitutes the University archives?
The archives is a unit of the Department of Special Collections in the Main Library. We have over 700 collections—more than 7,000 linear feet—that represent all 11 colleges. We collect faculty members’ papers, administrative records, and other materials. A section in the UI Operations Manual details which records can be destroyed and which may be transferred to the archives. We collect some alumni papers, but most of those are maintained as manuscript collections in our department, rather than archives. Paul Engle’s papers, for example, are a manuscript collection, while the archives has administrative records and student work for the Writers’ Workshop dating from 1965. We also have a wide range of student life-themed collections.
The vast majority of our holdings are open and available for research. We don’t collect confidential material such as personnel evaluations or records containing social security numbers. Some sensitive material is collected with an agreement that access to it is restricted for, say, 25 years—the UI president’s records are an example.
What’s a typical day like in your world?
No two days are alike. I get questions that range from helping someone with a genealogy search to confirming the existence of a course for an alum who’s applying to grad school. Sometimes offices on campus want to reconstruct the steps that led to a past decision and I help them find the documents that went into it. I get calls when there’s a program or department celebrating an upcoming anniversary. For example, the Scottish Highlanders’ diamond jubilee is in 2011, and there will be an exhibit to commemorate it at the UI Athletics Hall of Fame.
Another part of my job is helping to improve access to our collections. Our web site is continually being refined and currently lists 730 collections, about half of which have links to guides describing their content. I work with the wonderful digital libraries services staff to help select images to be digitized: we recently uploaded all the available UI Alumni Association magazines online, which are a great chronicle of University life.
I also work with our excellent library preservation staff, identifying projects in need of conservation work. And I assist with instruction in graduate and undergraduate courses in several departments, including English and history.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
I learn something every time I help someone with a search.
You mentioned digitizing the collection. How else has technology affected the work you do?
My training was during an interesting period of transition. I returned to graduate school in 1995, and my cohort was on the cusp of the transition from print to an electronic information environment. The Internet was still a blue screen with white text. We were the last class at the University of Maryland’s library science school to complete a course in reference training at a time when 75 percent of consulted resources were traditional print and 25 percent were in some fledgling online form or CD-ROMs. By the next semester, that had flipped to 25 percent print, 75 percent electronic.
There’s no question that technology has made life better in terms of access. Researchers using the archives can find out much more quickly through the web site and InfoHawk what we have available. And there’s no question that usage of the archives has increased, too. It means that we need to expedite the availability of materials. In a traditional environment, items in each collection were organized so thoroughly that each had its own description. That’s a luxury we can no longer afford. Now we provide a more generalized description. This seems to satisfy users because it allows us to speed up access. Technology also enables searching in ways that weren’t possible in the past: keywords enable sorting, for example.
That said, technology also presents a tremendous challenge to archivists. Formats are continually changing as hardware and software changes. Documents that used to be printed are now often “born digital”—the General Catalog is one example. The Office of the Registrar has done a tremendous job of retaining these for historical purposes, but not all departments are able to do this. So there is a general concern for what might be lost.
by Linzee Kull McCray