Sammi Merritt Begins New Adventure in Alaska

Archives staff member Sammi Merritt is leaving for a new position as Electronic Resources and Repository Librarian for the Alaska Resources Library and Information Services (ARLIS ). Sammi has contributed to the University of Illinois Archives in innumerable ways, especially as a part of the Archives reference team and answering numerous reference inquiries (check out one such inquiry to which Sammi responded in this great post Why can’t I find archival material on Google?).

We interviewed Sammi about her experiences working in the Archives and about her new role. We will greatly miss her and wish her the best in her new adventure!

Sammi Merritt

How did you “end up” at the University of Illinois Archives? Tell us about your background.

My path to the Archives was not always straightforward, but so far, I’ve been pleased with my trajectory. Initially an art student in college, I stepped away after earning my AA and got a certificate in web development from a technical school. After a couple years of web development work, I decided to return to college to finish my BA degree. I earned my BA in History at Florida Gulf Coast University with minors in Medieval Studies and Art History, with the goal of eventually working in a field where I could work with medieval manuscripts and artifacts, conducting research on a daily basis.

During my studies, I learned about careers in archives through two encounters. In my final summer as an undergrad, I attended a field school for Conservation of Historic Book Bindings in San Gemini, Italy, where I hoped to get hands-on experience working with historic books (especially medieval ones). In this course, I met many students who were already working towards an MLIS degree (or planning on it). I also learned that an MLIS could be a viable path towards a career in cultural heritage and was encouraged by my classmates to look into this route, given my passion for documentary evidence as a whole. In the following semester, I had the opportunity to intern at a local history museum, processing a collection of ephemera in their archives. The tangible connection between the documents in my hands and the local past was a powerful experience which made me feel much more connected to the history around me. This is where I started to understand the impact that archives and local history can have on a community, and where I decided I would pursue the MLIS route for my career.

I attended the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign to earn my MS in Library and Information Science alongside an MA in History, continuing to focus my studies on medieval history, but also on archives, museums, and special collections more broadly. During my time as a graduate student, I had the amazing opportunity to work as a graduate assistant at the University Archives, where I spent most of my time processing physical material until the pandemic struck. Amidst the pandemic, I helped with reference, built some digital tools to facilitate administrative tasks online, and worked on remote processing projects.

Once I graduated with my master’s degrees, I applied for the position that I am in now, as part of the reference team at the University Archives. Working more closely with the many researchers who contact us daily, I’ve learned a great deal about how archives operate and how people tend to use or encounter archives, which have in turned informed my reference outlooks and strategies.

What did you do in the Archives? Describe a typical day.

As part of the reference team at the University Archives’ Main Library location, my main job is to provide access to the material in our holdings. Most days, this means that I receive and respond to inquiries from our researchers – ranging from scheduling visits and retrieving boxes, to leading instruction sessions for classes visiting the Archives, to performing in-depth research to answer questions sent in remotely.

While people from all professions and walks of life find themselves using archives on occasion, the searching strategies and background knowledge needed to effectively find your way through archival material tend to be quite specialized. Having someone like me (and my other reference colleagues) at the ready to guide researchers through the searching and retrieval process, as well as offer helpful suggestions for where to begin (or continue) your research, can make the difference between a successful or an unsuccessful research trip. For this reason I’ve taken this role as a facilitator quite seriously.

At the same time, I am also a historian at heart, and I can’t help but get entangled in the web of a research question when a juicy one comes along. When time permits, I also conduct my own research into some of the burning questions that arise from looking through our holdings, and write up blog posts with my findings.

What is one of your most interesting/strange/fun research questions?

It would be quite difficult for me to pick just one question as my favorite/most interesting/most strange research question I have received; we get many questions every week, and there’s at least one that catches my interest almost every day.

The questions that stick with me the most, however, are the ones that are left unanswered. I recall one question about a massive collection of papyrus fragments which used to be held at the university, called the American Center of the International Photographic Archives of Papyri. The researcher wanted to know what records we had of the Center’s existence, and I was only able to find some tangential references to the project scattered throughout the Archives; no conclusive answers to any of the who, what, when, why, how questions that I would have liked to find. Another one that haunts me is a question about the fate of the Artist’s Studio “Peep Show” models created by Lorado Taft. The Archives has records of these in Taft’s papers, and I was able to find that they were eventually transferred to the World Heritage Museum on campus, but the Museum had no records of them when the researcher followed up.

I also have a bit of a penchant for finding documentary evidence to back up (or discount) local legends – I had a great time researching the question of the legendary bulldozer beneath the Memorial Stadium (spoiler alert: there isn’t one), and I’ve recently addressed a long-burning question of my own about whether the legend of the ghost in the English Building had any basis in reality.

On behalf of our researchers, I’ve investigated topics such as the cause of death of Avery Brundage, the age and origin of the trees on campus, the provenance of a dubiously-recorded donation of records and books about prisons from the early-twentieth century, the origin of the flea-flicker football play, genealogical inquiries about far-removed family members, the history of the telephone on campus, and much, much more. The uniqueness of each research question and the thrill of the hunt for extant documents which answer the question effectively has been my favorite part of this job, and I will sorely miss this aspect of working with special collections as I move into the next chapter of my career.

Tell us about your new adventure in Alaska?

I will be taking a full-time faculty position as Electronic Resources and Repository Librarian for the Alaska Resources Library and Information Services (ARLIS). The ARLIS Library is a special collection in its own right, being a consolidation of the libraries for several natural resources departments in the state of Alaska, such as the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Department. This position will focus on improving access to electronic resources for the library, such as the collections catalog and the e-journal subscriptions.

How has your experience at the University of Illinois and in the Archives prepared you for your new job?

As both a reference archivist and a long-time web developer, my skills in searching and analyzing information as well as understanding usability and accessibility are going to be put to good use in this new role. The existing catalog limits the findability of many of the ARLIS materials, and while current research needs are largely remote, online access to the collections is sparse at the moment. Additionally, there is plenty of material that still needs to be processed and cataloged, including a fair amount of archival material, so I have no doubts that my four years in the University Archives will have left me with the experience I need to help properly create access points for those.

Working in and with archives requires experience in interpreting primary source documents, compiling information from a range of diverse sources, and creative problem solving, all of which will be valuable to me as I work on improving access to the electronic resources as part of the ARLIS collections. Fortunately for me, this job also entails participating in the reference workload, so I’ll have a whole new set of collections to learn and new questions to investigate daily. I will miss the University Archives, but new adventures await!


A Legacy of Curiosity: Ricardo B. Uribe and Cybernetics

By Sophia Ebel

Is it possible for a sole field of study to encompass philosophy, mathematics, biology, cognitive science, computer science, sociology, political science, economics, and more? To attempt to answer some of the most complex questions out there about the diverse systems—biological, social, technological, and more—that govern our lives? That, in a nutshell, is the field of cybernetics—the “antidisciplinary” science that formed the core of Ricardo B. Uribe’s research at the University of Illinois.

BCL Report No. 68.2, Ricardo B. Uribe Papers, University of Illinois Archives, Record Series 11/6/40, Box 2.

Born in Santiago, Chile, in 1935, Uribe studied electrical engineering at the University of Chile before joining the institution’s teaching and research staff. In the early 1970s he worked on Project Cybersyn, a project supported by the Chilean government that employed cybernetic approaches to organize and reform the country’s economy. Political turmoil, however, changed the course of Uribe’s life and career when General Augusto Pinochet seized power in the 1973 Chilean coup d’état. Uribe and his family fled, seeking refuge in Illinois where renowned cybernetician Heinz von Foerster (whose papers are also held by the University of Illinois Archives) had created a position for him in UIUC’s Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL).[1]

Education and the ways in which humans understand the systems surrounding them are two threads interwoven throughout Uribe’s work; these reflect both the cybernetic research interests of the time and his own lived experiences. Much of Uribe’s early writing relates to “autopoiesis” —the process by which a system is able to self-maintain, reproduce, and create the components it needs to expand—and the implications of autopoietic systems for relativity, human understanding, and various forms of modeling. A variation on this concept is demonstrated by W. Ross Ashby’s elementary Non-Trivial Machine (NTM), a device contained in the Ricardo B. Uribe Papers. Ashby was a cybernetician contemporary of Uribe; Von Foerster had coined the term “non-trivial machine” to describe any system in which the “input-output relationship is not invariant, but is determined by the machine’s previous output.”[2] The machine does utilize input, but like an autopoietic system has an independent internal state and constantly produces new operations as to maintain a condition of unpredictability.  

Ashby’s Non-Trivial Machine, Ricardo B. Uribe Papers, University of Illinois Archives, Record Series 11/6/40.

Ashby’s NTM consists of an aluminum box with two switches and two lights. The observer’s task is to determine the internal structure of the system by flipping the switches and watching the lights. One of the switches, however, changes the internal configuration of the box whenever it is flipped. The purpose of this machine was to exemplify the environment in which an artificial brain may operate, and to demonstrate the difficulty of understanding human cognition—perhaps the ultimate non-trivial machine. Autopoiesis, while not equivalent to cognition, is considered one of the prerequisites of a cognitive system. 

Uribe’s views on education were also central to his career and work. In his magnum opus, Tractatus Paradoxico-Philosphicus: A Philosophical Approach to Education, Uribe described education as a recursive system: 

“If humans rather instruct than educate their children, these children will instruct their children even more (educating them even less), and they in turn will similarly do with their own children and so on and on. If humans do not perish at the hands of uneducated leaders, sooner than later they will grow into a population of morons who only obey rules, predictable creatures, ants of an anthill, humans no more. The sad (happy?) end of the story: awareness of their own shortcomings will thoroughly escape them.”[3]

Tractatus Paradoxico-Philosophicus, Ricardo B. Uribe Papers, University of Illinois Archives, Record Series 11/6/40, Box 6.

This passage calls back to the violence and bloodshed Uribe would have witnessed during and after the 1973 Chilean coup d’état, and defines his approach to instruction at the University of Illinois. In addition to his work in BCL, Uribe established the Advanced Digital Systems Laboratory (ADSL) to bring together students across disciplines and encourage creative, collaborative, and unconventional problem solving. ADSL continues today as the Advanced Digital Projects Laboratory, and is an undergraduate/graduate course open to qualified students from all colleges. Uribe’s philosophy also shaped the curriculum of “ECE 110: Introduction to Electrical and Computer Engineering,” which introduces first year students to ECE principles in a hands-on and explorative manner. The central project of the course—working in groups to design “an autonomous electric vehicle” able to navigate an unknown course—is Uribe’s design.[4]

In addition to Tractatus Paradoxico-Philosophicus and the NTM, the Archives’ recent donation of Uribe’s papers include years of BCL reprints and reports, manuscripts relating cybernetics to other scientific and humanistic fields, conference materials, American Society for Cybernetics documents, and select course materials. Uribe’s legacy is one of curiosity—asking big questions and encouraging others to think in unconventional ways, question the status quos of both life and learning, and discover for themselves.  


[1]  James Hutchinson, “Remembering Ricardo Uribe, Founder of ECE’s Advanced Digital Projects Laboratory,”Grainger College of Engineering Electrical & Computer Engineering, last modified October 13, 2019,

[2] Heinz von Foerster, “Perception of the Future and the Future of Perception,” BCL Publication 198, photomechanically reproduced from Instructional Science, 1, 1, (March 1974): 31-43, Record Series 11/6/40, Box 3, University of Illinois Archives.

[3] Ricardo B. Uribe, “Tractatus Paradoxico-Philosophicus: A Philosophical Approach to Education,” Red Edition, Copyright 1991-2007, Record Series 11/6/40, Box 6, University of Illinois Archives.

[4] Ricardo B. Uribe et al., “A design laboratory in electrical and computer engineering for freshmen,” IEEE Transactions on Education, vol. 37, issue 2 (May 1994): 194-202, doi: 10.1109/13.284994. 

The Ricardo B. Uribe Papers were processed with generous funding from the Thomas M. Siebel Endowment for the History of Science.

Capturing Campus Life During a Pandemic

By Bethany Anderson and Jessica Ballard

Image courtesy of University Housing, which created and gave us permission to use this flyer.

A photo of a desolate street. A video journal entry. A student’s hip hop performance. A screenshot of a Zoom meeting. These are but a few examples of submissions that the University of Illinois Archives has received as part of a call to the campus community to share their experiences during the COVID-19 crisis.

Over the last few weeks, life at the University of Illinois has drastically changed in response to Governor Pritzker’s “stay-at-home” order: students and faculty have shifted in-person courses to remote instruction; most staff are working remotely in their homes; and meetings that were once in-person are now conducted primarily by video conference. The impact of these changes to daily life has been profound and disruptive. What’s become clear is that the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting every part of the University of Illinois community–from building workers to students, faculty, staff, and alumni–and it is affecting everyone in different ways.

An example of a submission: Professor Larry DeBrock, Dean Emeritus and Professor of Finance and Professor of Economics, during a webinar on the economic impact of the coronavirus. This photo was taken in his home studio with ad-hoc sound-proofing.

We are living in an unprecedented time, one which future researchers will want to study in order to understand what it was like to live through this pandemic. The Archives wants to ensure that these experiences are captured and preserved for future generations, whether they are in the form of artwork, an email to a colleague, a photo of one’s remote workspace, or a written or recorded snapshot of one’s experience at a specific moment in time.

Consider sharing your story with the Archives. Submissions may be made through this form: The form will remain open through December 31, 2020, but the deadline may be extended if needed. Submissions may also be anonymous. Your submission does not necessarily need to be a digital item–the Archives is also accepting physical items for donation once we resume onsite operations.

Please contact Bethany Anderson (Natural and Applied Sciences Archivist) and Jessica Ballard (Archivist for Multicultural Collections and Services) with questions about this initiative.

Mapping History at the University of Illinois

By Ellen Swain

In January 2016, James Whitacre (GIS Specialist), Marci Uihlein (Professor/Architecture), and Ellen Swain (Student Life and Culture Archivist) received Library Innovation Funds to develop a project entitled Mapping History at the University of Illinois—a “bringing together” of GIS, architecture and archives to tell the University’s story in time for the Sesquicentennial year.

The three project components include:

Campus History:  Brief narratives (written by project historian John Franch) and covering themes across seven historic eras, integrating GIS story maps and architectural modeling, and archival holdings

Check out this Fly-through of University Hall (1871-1938) from Depression Era:

Interactive Campus Maps:  GIS time-enabled map; 3-D modeling, and story maps produced (with James Whitacre’s assistance) by Joe Porto, Scholarly Commons graduate assistant, undergraduate student assistants and interns.  Jessica Ballard, Archives Faculty Resident, created the African American Housing history map.

Check out this Story map of Illinois Field:

Digital Map Archives: 525 campus, community and county maps from University Archives, Map Library and Champaign County Historical Archives holdings, conserved by Conservation and digitized by Digital Services.

Check out the archives here:

Through this project, we hope to inspire and showcase student scholarship about the University of Illinois.  We are continually adding new content.


University of Illinois Archives Awarded NEH Grant to Digitize “The Cybernetics Thought Collective”

Heinz von Foerster (left) and W. Ross Ashby (right), found in record series 39/1/11, box 3. The W. Ross Ashby Papers are held by the British Library. The University of Illinois Archives preserves the Heinz von Foerster Papers.

The University of Illinois Archives has been awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to develop a prototype web-portal and analysis-engine to provide access to archival material related to the development of the iconic, multi-disciplinary field of cybernetics. Continue reading “University of Illinois Archives Awarded NEH Grant to Digitize “The Cybernetics Thought Collective””