Into the Archives

Jan. 21, 2010, 12:01 a.m.

From her office on the third floor of Green Library, overlooking the sprawling campus, Aimee Morgan reviews t-shirts, dissertations, turtle shells, pocket watches and football programs.

Morgan — who received both a Masters of Science in Information Science and a Masters in History — previously worked as an archivist at Emory University in Atlanta.

As the Assistant University Archivist at Stanford, she is primarily responsible for selecting which documents from 2009 capture the essence of the University.

“What will be important 20, 30 and even 40 years from now?” said Morgan, explaining the criteria that she uses to select documents.

While every edition of the University’s major newspapers as well as research publications, Board of Trustee minutes and high-level policy decisions are stored in the archives, interesting trinkets also find a home there. Located in storage spaces around the campus like the Stanford Auxiliary Libraries, these items hold age-old University stories.

Most artifacts are stored in standard cardboard boxes that are one-and-a-half feet tall when turned on their sides. Morgan estimates that there are around 30,000 of these boxes and end-to-end, these boxes would circle Campus Loop roughly one and a half times. For extremely delicate or oversized items, custom boxes are constructed.

Within the vast assortment of memorabilia, Morgan noted one of her favorite items in the archives: a dried turtle shell.

Leland Stanford’s brother, Thomas Welton Stanford, was an active participant in the spiritualist movement during the Victorian era. He believed that he could make contact with people who had passed away and often held seances to communicate with them. Items from the seances found their way into the archives, including the turtle shell of a green-skinned intruder on one of these spiritual interactions.

Another item that Morgan recalled was a priceless piece of jewelry that once belonged to Jane Stanford. Following her husband’s death, Jane was the sole individual responsible for running the University and she was determined to keep it afloat. Rumor has it that she sold her jewel collection to buy coal to heat students’ dorm rooms and provide other residential necessities. To this day, a “jewel fund” still exists to purchase books for students.

In actuality, Jane Stanford did sell her jewels, but not during this financial crisis.

“Years later, the pocket watch from her collection was found on eBay,” she explained. “An incredibly generous donor then bid on it and gave it to the University archives.”

While no pieces from Jane Stanford’s jewelry collection made their way into the archives this year, other notable artifacts and events will be memorialized.

One major story that will definitely enter this year’s preservation stage was Stanford’s announcement of plans for a $100 million energy-research institute called the Precourt Institute for Energy. The announcement was particularly noteworthy because it was a collaborative effort across many fields on the Stanford campus, Morgan said. The notorious cancellation of Full Moon on the Quad will also be documented in the archives.

“People will wonder why an event that was so entrenched in tradition was cancelled,” Morgan said. “It was the first time it was cancelled since it was incorporated as an official University event.”

Public health scholars many years in the future may be interested to look back in the archives to learn about a little-known disease by the name of H1N1 that plagued the Stanford campus in 2009. And any person who stepped on campus during the fall could not have ignored the football team’s incredible season, led by Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart.

“It was obviously a big year for us so we collected several memorabilia like football programs and other items to preserve those memories,” Morgan said.

Other major events to be documented include major construction projects on campus, with the completion of the Munger and Crothers residence units. Morgan also mentioned that the “unstuffing” of housing would go into the archives.

The Stanford News Report, before it became an online-only publication, sent all of its print publications to the archives. Scott Stocker, the Director of Web Communications, revealed the top five articles that will definitely be noted from the past year.

Topping the list was an article entitled “Open-source camera could revolutionize digital photography,” a story about new photo technology being worked on by Stanford scientists. The second story discussed Stanford research by Cliff Nass that found that media multitasking might actually impair one’s cognition.

The remaining three stories were about a free Stanford course on developing iPhone software, the University’s decision to raise tuition yet maintain its commitment to financial aid, and finally, Stanford researchers who created the world’s smallest writing.

While the Stanford News Report and other publications can choose which events were the “most popular” by checking objective facts, such as the number of page views on a certain article, archivist Morgan must factor in a variety of criteria. Space is always an issue, so she combs through hundreds of items to determine which ones are most worthy of entering the halls of archive fame.

“My favorite part of the job is that I get to help connect people at Stanford — and beyond — with the information and historical resources that they need,” Morgan said. “And you get to come across so many artifacts with such interesting histories.”

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