How GCU archive was assembled into grand history

August 28, 2020 / by / 0 Comment
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Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the August issue of GCU Magazine. To read the digital version of the magazine, click here.

By Rick Vacek
GCU Magazine

The Grand Canyon University Library launched a construction project last year that proved even more groundbreaking than the new structures that dot the campus. It was piecing together the institution’s history.

The result is the GCU Historical Archives, which can spark the curiosity or rekindle fond memories of alumni from across the decades.

There’s so much to see, it’s easy to get lost on the website for hours. It contains 1,000 photos from the 1940s to 1980s – the people, the places, the gatherings, the overhead views – and one precious video of the 1951 opening of the Phoenix campus after the move from Prescott.

The heavy lifting was done by Information Resources Manager Alaina Dowd and Library Archivist Madeline Weaver, who had to digitize and then cull more than 18,000 items, often with little information to go on. It was detective work that would challenge Sherlock Holmes in his own home.

“Imagine cleaning out your basement and trying to sort through your stuff and how difficult that can be sometimes, especially when it’s from 30 years ago and personal to you,” Dowd said. “Here we are with other people’s stuff. You’re being that much more careful to respect history. You have to organize things and bite off small pieces because you very easily could become overwhelmed.”

That’s where Weaver came in, thanks to a Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant from the Arizona State Library, Archives & Public Records, a division of the Secretary of State. Her temporary position was made possible by federal funds from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and she clearly enjoyed the excavation.

The senior class won first place for this display at Homecoming in 1965.

“I like to compare it to indoor archaeology,” she said. “Instead of being outside digging a hole, I’m inside looking through a box.”

She had to dig through a wall of boxes that sat in a closet for five years while Director of Library Services Nita Mailander looked for a way to get the project off the ground.

Mailander found the answer when she attended a “Learn about LSTA” workshop and talked with Jaime Ball, Library Development Administrator for the Arizona State Library and the coordinator of the grants. GCU was one of 50 entities issued part of the $675,000 in State Library grants last year, and before long Weaver was putting her archiving expertise to good use.

“Madeline really had a keen ability to organize it,” Mailander said. “Some of it is science and some of it is art.”

Part of Weaver’s task was to determine which pieces from the GCU collection would go to the Arizona Memory Project, which has grown from 11 contributing partners and 17 collections at its inception 14 years ago to 93 and 225 today.

“It is just so perfectly aligned to what the State Library does,” said Holly Henley, State Librarian and Director of Library Services.

Ryan Ehrfurth, Digital History Maps Librarian and the manager of the Arizona Memory Project, likens it to preserving the story of an old building when a new one goes up in its place.

“You’ve probably heard the line, ‘In order to understand our present and future we have to understand the past.’ If you don’t have the documents and what we call primary sources, the original stuff, how else would you know?” he said.

“Doing history is a process. We’re learning more as researchers to get the word out there. The idea is to get history in more accessible places, and the Arizona Memory Project is a way to do that.”

At GCU, the idea was to take its history out of that overstuffed closet, where only the occasional student or faculty member could grab something for a project, and make it accessible to the world.

The old Fleming Library, with cars from that era.

“To be able to see some of these photos, especially now that they’re digitized on the Arizona Memory Project and on our own repository as well, you just think to yourself, ‘These were people who were part of GCU history, part of Phoenix history, part of Arizona history,’” Dowd said. “We’re just so fortunate to be part of this event.”

Mailander promised that the digitizing and posting work will continue long after GCU passes the 1,000 mark. “Madeline has really set us up for some success,” Mailander said.

As in long-term success.

“People who will be in our equivalent positions 100 years from now,” Ehrfurth said, “can look back to what we did today and say, ‘I’m so glad that somebody thought of this.’”

When they see the GCU collection, alumni no doubt will be saying the same thing.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].

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