Grand Canyon’s colorful history comes into full view
By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
The history of Grand Canyon University has come to life online, in all of the quaint splendor of its previous incarnation as Grand Canyon College.
The GCU Library has been working for nearly a year to take 18,000 items that filled a closet behind the third-floor information desk and transform them into a visual remembrance of life on campus from 1949 to 1984.
The result is the Grand Canyon University Historical Archives Collections.
The effect is like discovering a historical gold mine.
“We knew we had some treasures, but we didn’t know how much,” said Nita Mailander, Director of Library Services. “… There was a lot of treasure.”
The project is supported by the Arizona State Library, Archives & Public Records, a division of the Secretary of State, with federal funds from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
And there’s no question which artifact is its most treasured: It’s the film of the 1951 grand opening of the Phoenix campus – especially considering how beat up it looked when it was discovered. Fortunately, it was in good enough condition to be digitized.
“It looked like this decrepit thing, and it ended up being this really nice representation of history and Phoenix and GCU,” said Information Resources Manager Alaina Dowd, who managed the project with the assistance of Library Archivist Madeline Weaver.
“It’s a silent film, but it certainly shows some of the different locations around campus that I’m sure some folks will recognize. It shows a whole different era with people all dressed up in their fancy suits – no T-shirts and jeans. I think that’s the real gem we found so far.”
But there’s so much more in photo after photo from every corner of what was then a group of small buildings, a far cry from the 260-acre campus of today. There are 500 items posted on the site, and 500 more are expected to be online by the end of June.
“We have the meat of it all done,” Dowd said. “It’s just adding the additional content.”
Mailander had been eager to get the project started ever since the Library moved to its new location in the Student Union during the 2013-14 academic year. Alumni Relations also was moving and no longer had space to store the historical materials, and Mailander just happened to have the closet available.
Her thoughts at the time: “I’ll take it. I don’t know what that means, but I’ll just take it and then we know we have it in a safe place and it’s not going to get lost in the turbulent construction zone of GCU.”
As the years went by, the Library received requests for access to the collection – usually about a dozen a year. It gnawed at Mailander that there wasn’t time to organize it.
“It was a hunt-and-find, Easter egg drama,” she said. “We would tell people, ‘I’ll unlock the door. Good luck!’”
But then the University transitioned to nonprofit status in 2018, which made it eligible for grants. Voila – it was time for Mailander to have Dowd begin the project and hire Weaver to do the hands-on archiving.
It also was time for Dowd and Weaver to enjoy immersing themselves in Grand Canyon’s storied past.
“I was a history major as an undergrad, so for me this was a lot of fun,” Dowd said. “For Madeline, this obviously was right up her alley so it was a lot of fun for her, too. It was a lot of work but well worth it, I think.
“Seeing some of these old photos, you can really make connections – ‘Oh, this is where that building is now on campus’ or ‘I think I see the palm trees from this angle if I stand right here.’”
Said Mailander, “That’s the fun thing we’re hoping everyone experiences, that you can reconnect with the University at a different time depending on where you were at or what your connection was. It kind of informs those feelings of the past and connects them to the present as well. That’s been a hoot.”
Mailander is grateful to the Arizona State Library, Archives & Public Records and the Institute of Museum and Library Services for making it possible to create the Historical Archives, part of the GCU Library Digital Collections and discoverable to the Arizona community as part of the Arizona Memory Project.
“It really was an Arizona community project,” she said. “How can the history of GCU better inform us Arizona citizens?”
The simple answer is to let them see it, in black and white and sometimes in full color. It’s a golden touch.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].