How did you end up in the Archives, and did you think you’d be an archivist?
While in library school (GSLIS /the i-school) I thought I wanted to be a children’s librarian, but then in a practicum I discovered that I did not like working with kids who misbehaved without parents present. At the same time I had a Graduate Assistantship with the Student Life and Culture Archives and liked processing but also enjoyed doing research for reference questions. Ironically, I believe I was hired for the GA position because I had been in a sorority, which turned out to be my least favorite part of being an undergraduate at Elmhurst College.
What are your responsibilities? How has your work changed over the past almost 20 years?
I have much more responsibility than I’ve ever had. In the 20 years I’ve been here, the Archives has expanded exponentially in the amount of records and staff at our locations. More materials and staff means more work in all aspects of Archives. I lead the reference and administrative operations for the Main Library Archives location within the University Archives. We help visiting and remote researchers from all over the world every day. Topics I’ve personally helped with include historical enrollment statistics, identifying an Arabic manuscript, Illinois farming lesson tours across the country by train, and the experiences of Japanese American students during and after WWII. The Japanese American experience resulted in an exhibit currently running at the Spurlock Museum on campus.
What has been your funniest/strangest/most memorable or satisfying experience at the Archives?
Finding a jar of soil, with the former University Archivist, in an Archives box related to Agriculture records.
What would you like people to know about the Archives (or University history) that may surprise them?
I suspect many believe all we have is University history and they would be right, but we have so much more! We have records that involve groundbreaking research and new inventions. We are rich in records from science, engineering, and agriculture. With the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music, we also have an abundance of University Band and music materials from around the world. I would love for us to acquire more records from the College of Fine and Applied Arts involving material art, drama, theater, and architecture.
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!
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!
Recently the Archives received a question from a student who wanted to know: why aren’t archival records searchable with Google? Is there any way to make Google show archival results?
While on the surface this seems like a simple question, the issue is quite nuanced and dependent on individual practices of different repositories. The main reason that Google doesn’t reflect archival information is that the majority of archival material is not digitized (i.e., converted from a physical format to a digital one, such as via scanning paper material). Something that I usually tell students is that when you’ve heard teachers and librarians tell you that “80% of all information can’t be found online,” the material in the archives comprises a large chunk of that 80% which requires more effort to find. Other scholarly resources that end up behind paywalls, as well as files that are currently in use or not yet deposited anywhere comprise another sizable portion. Even when archival material is born-digital or digitized, it tends to be accessible and searchable mainly within the catalog or database that it lives in, as opposed to through major search engines like Google.
For this week’s Tales from the Nitrate Negatives, please humor us for a bit as we engage in a bit of train-based role play:
Imagine with for a second that it’s the early spring, 1947 and you’re finishing up a long train journey back to Champaign from Chicago. It’s a quaint Saturday morning and you’ve been expecting a relaxing ride home after a week working in the city. As you start to see the oh-so familiar corn and soybean fields flying past as your 100 mile per hour ride is whizzing through the state. As the image of farmers riding by in tractors is starting to get a tad monotonous, you feel the train slightly lurch. Thankfully, you know this feeling well. It’s a totally normal feeling just before the train starts to decelerate on the trip into town. You feel that slightly thicker air drag on you as the body of the train begins slowing down, but you still have so much inertia dragging you forward. It’s a nice feeling, but you feel it a tad more intense than usual. Moments after that first lurch, the train lurches again. Before you can even question it, you hear the screeching wail of steel scraping against steel and you see sparks an iron go flying past these former farm-filled windows. Your cabin lurches one last time, harder than before. The rapid compression causes the windows to all shatter around you as your body is hurled over your diner car table. There is a brief moment where you are unbound by gravity just before you’re hurled headfirst into a silverware cart; your 1947 brain wonders “How in the world did some yuck, geezer, cold fish, chicken, chrome dome, 1940’s slang, train conductor just crash this train?!”. Everything goes black. You get flits of the fiery and wicked scene as you’re dragged out of the train by rescue crews and taken to a local hospital for injuries. The next morning, lying in a Champaign hospital, you check the day’s newspaper. You read that your train somehow jumped a track injuring 197 and killing 2 people. Just before the, likely over-prescribed, morphine kicks in, you ask the question, “What in the world could have happened to this train?”
Well, the story of the City of Miami Streamliner is a graphic, yet interesting tale. On Saturday April 19th, train conductor Charles H. Redus noticed that the remote-control track switch meant to bring his train into into Champaign was hasn’t been flipped. In his reports to the investigators just before his passing, Redus noted that he’d seen a green light shine on the switch relay. While that traditionally meant he was clear to go, he saw from the front of the train that the switch itself had not actually flipped. He did his best to slow the train down in the 300 feet before the incoming disaster, but it was too late. The train hit the switch, jumped the track, and rolled itself off the train tracks. The Champaign News-Gazette of April 20, 1947, reports that it tore up more than a quarter mile of track as the entire streamliner “went up in a nest of steel and a ball of flame.” On April 27th, a Daily Illini Article reported on an investigation by Amtrak and city officials. Their results found that an improper installation of electrical relays on the track was the culprit. Two relays, installed the morning just before the wreck occurred, were incorrectly installed. The signal was mistakenly inverted. So, when it was meant to flash yellow and signal to slow down, it shined green, and vice versa. If it weren’t for Redus’ keen eyes of the track itself, this mistaken relay could have brought the train full force into the crash zone. Just a simple electrical mistake that brought this 85 mile per hour (136 KMpH) missile of a train flying off the tracks into a ripped steel, diesel fireball.
Despite the coalescence of mistakes, the casualty numbers were thankfully very low. Initial reports said 197 people were injured, but the number was lowered to 107 by the 20th with only 32 hospitalized. The 2 casualties of the accident were the two men at the further points front and back of the train. The final car’s bagman, Charles N. Wood, and the engineer, Charles H. Redus, were the only people who lost their lives as a result of the crash. Many reports note that the tables bolted to the floor and chars adhered to the walls prevented massive structures from crushing people throughout the train. The bagman, Charles Wood, was killed instantly. The lurches of the train and the collapse of the final car brought the bagging compartment crashing down on him. An eyewitness to the bag car reported that Wood was crushed by the luggage instantly and he couldn’t save him. The conductor, Charles Redus, was thrust into the control panel and his leg was badly injured. In a report from the April 25th Daily Illini, a passenger that rushed to his aid had to apply a tourniquet to his leg to stop the bleeding. Ambulances arrived 15 minutes after the crash when two different farmers plowing their nearby fields witnessed the explosion. The blast and sounds could be heard for miles and the response was thankfully almost instantaneous.
Within the hour, wrecking crews, garbage train cars, and Strauch himself were on scene. The images of these collection were taken around 15:00 when the wreck itself occurred at 13:15. His images capture both the astonishment of investigators, the shock on the eyes of the rescued passengers, and the grim visages of the wrecking crews. While one wouldn’t expect a series of just 31 images about a train crash to carry such emotion, Strauch captured the grueling ambiance of the scene. Gray clouds had rolled in, and the sheer carnage of a vehicle formerly so pristine is intense.
The speed at which Strauch arrived on scene allowed for history to be captured when it could have been just as easily lost to time. Almost a century later we can look back on a story so well preserved in the heart of these images. It makes us reflect on what images of the modern day tragedies we face will persevere, and what stories will be told of those caught in our versions of the train wreck? We approach a century since Strauch’s first pictures were taken, yet we still deal with the same feelings of loss and the same accidents that beget tragedy. So, the burden placed on us all is to think of how we can learn from the past to venerate those lost in the present.
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.
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: https://go.library.illinois.edu/COVID-19Archives. 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.