Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Terrible Fragility of History

Frank Boles

On April 15 Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris experienced a catastrophic fire. The images of flames shooting through the roof and the collapse of the cathedral central spire were horrifying to see.

People reacted to the fire in many ways. Those who worshipped at the cathedral or shared the faith of those worshippers could only pray as they watched their beloved church consumed in fire and smoke. Historians grieved over the massive damage occurring at a world heritage site. Those of us in special collections libraries saw the fire through our own lens.
Medieval cathedrals such as Notre Dame were both grand architectural statements and carefully crafted instructional books. The beautiful stained glass windows were not only a form of worship, prayer expressed in color and glass, but also illustrated important religious scenes for a largely illiterate worshiping community. A sixteenth century worshipper inside Notre Dame might not be able to read the Bible, might not understand the Latin spoken by the priest celebrating the mass, but by glancing up to the light, much of the faith’s most important teachings were there to be seen.
As Notre Dame burned, a century’s old tutorial work in the Catholic faith made of glass and stone was suddenly at risk. The fire was a tragic reminder for keepers of history, archivists and rare book librarians in particular, that the collections whose safety they are responsible for are a fragile heritage subject not only to subtle decay but sudden calamity.
Unlike a medieval cathedral, a modern storage facility for rare books and archives such as the Clarke Historical Library has fire walls, smoke alarms, fire suppression systems installed and ready to operate, and many other tools to protect the material. If the worst still happens a disaster plan outlines salvage procedures and priorities. The library has installed precautionary technology and written solid emergency plans, but like any human effort, they are not foolproof. As the fire at Notre Dame starkly illustrated, tragedy can suddenly overcome the physical media that carries our history, whether it exists on paper or is enshrined in glass and stone.  The physical “stuff” of history is fragile. Paper and vellum, light sensitive material used to create visual images, the bits and bytes through which computers store data, are all prone to long-term failure and sudden catastrophe. Preserving these media from destruction is one of the core objectives of the archival profession.
That archival imperative to preserve and protect the material on which history is recorded makes the fire at Notre Dame not only tragic to archivists, but deeply moving. It is what we spend years trying to avoid, and why watching the dramatic failure of those efforts was so profoundly chilling. I am sure I was not the only archivist who watched the video of the cathedral’s central spire falling in flame who, despite all their thought and planning to preserve the collection entrusted to their care, recalled the saying often attributed to the sixteenth century English evangelical preacher John Bradford, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”
We offer our deepest sympathy to the community of worshippers who called Notre Dame their spiritual home, to the people of Paris for whom the building was a central feature, and to the global community who have seen a world heritage site suffer grievously. We hope that all these people and others will unite to preserve those parts of the building that remain and rebuild those parts which have been lost. It is how I like to believe people like archivists, and historians, and those who cherish the past respond, whenever a cultural disaster strikes.


Monday, March 11, 2019

Hemingway Exhibit Opening


Frank Boles
On February 21 the Clarke Historical Library opened its current exhibit, The Hemingway Collection at the Clarke. For almost two decades the library has worked closely with a number of key partners to locate, develop, and make use of a growing body of material documenting Nobel-laureate Ernest Hemingway’s experiences in Michigan.
Hemingway’s family owned a cottage on the shores of Walloon Lake, near Petoskey. Ernie Hemingway, the eldest son of Dr. Clarence Hemingway and Grace Hall Hemingway spent his summers exploring the lake’s shoreline, learning more and more about life and people as each summer passed.

Ernest Hemingway at 17 years old
near Wallon Lake.
Today, the Hemingway collection in the Clarke Historical Library is of national importance. The presentation, however, did not dwell on the pieces of the collection that make this statement true.  Rather than talk about what was in the library, the presentation, made jointly by Mike Federspiel, Janet Danek, and Frank Boles, talked about how the collection came into being, and how it is used to educate and inform through exhibits and other outreach tools. The talk was, in practice, a case study on how archival collections are built and the uses they can be put to in public programming.
To hear their presentation please visit, https://vimeo.com/319562106 which is the website of Mt. Pleasant’s local public access television station, which recorded the talk.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Dr. Robert A. Thornton and Black Studies at CMU

by Bryan Whitledge

On June 1, 1969, the administration at Central Michigan University took a proactive step to improve diversity at CMU. President William Boyd hired Dr. Robert A. Thornton, a dean and professor of physics at San Francisco State University, to be a racial affairs consultant at the University. Dr. Boyd came to Mt. Pleasant from UC Berkeley in the summer of 1968 and, as he noted in a 2014 oral history interview, CMU struck him as a relatively homogeneous campus made up mostly of white students from Michigan.

Before Dr. Thornton came to campus, strides were already underway to improve curricular offerings in African-American studies. Just a few months into Dr. Boyd’s tenure, CMU convened the "Ad-Hoc Committee on Black Experience" with a charge of developing curricula and programming dedicated to exploring and informing the CMU community on matters of black culture. Additionally, the History Department was given permission to fast-track filling positions with professors to teach African-American history courses, and other departments, including English and Political Science, were encouraged to bring forward proposed courses that would incorporate the emerging discipline of African-American studies.

But Dr. Boyd knew that expanding curricular offerings in the humanities and social sciences was not enough. He drew upon his Bay-Area connections and requested that Dr. Thornton come to CMU to serve as a special assistant. His charge was "to help departments develop courses related to black studies, establish better relationships with predominantly black high schools, and recruit black students and faculty members." Dr. Thornton was a distinguished physicist and administrator who knew academia very well. He also came from San Francisco State University, which gave him a particular insight into the development of black studies curricula – only five months earlier, San Francisco State had officially created the first Department of Black Studies in the country. Dr. Thornton was a man familiar with the cutting edge of the black studies movement and he was asked to impart his knowledge to the CMU community.

Dr. Thornton arrived in Mt. Pleasant on June 1, 1969 and stayed at CMU for two months. He then returned for another two weeks during the following winter break. The programming developed by the administration, with the help of Dr. Thornton, resulted in several changes on campus directed at the African-American community and those interested in black studies. The University sponsored a Black Symposium, bringing black scholars and artists to campus to give students on the majority-white campus insight into black culture.

Another initiative was the creation of the African-American Cultural Center in 1969-70. It was established in the "Old Library," known today as Ronan Hall, as a place for all students on campus to go, but specifically geared toward African-American students for academic resources, cultural programming, and a location for studying. Just one year later, students, faculty, staff, and administration developed programming for the first African-American History Week at Central in 1971 with various performance art exhibitions, forums, and guest speakers aimed at increasing awareness and a sense of community at CMU.

Not all of the efforts undertaken during the Boyd administration resulted in success. Despite an effort to recruit African-American faculty, in 1974, ten of the 604 faculty (1.6%) identified as minority with eight African-American faculty members or 1.3% of the total faculty. The course in History about the African-American experience was taken off the books after only year because the university could not find a qualified instructor.

In the years immediately following Dr. Thornton’s time on campus, small and meaningful steps were taken to improve diversity and cultural understanding. While Dr. Thornton was not an instructor at Central, he made an impact on the many students who took part in the black studies programming he helped to establish. In 2019, the 50th anniversary of his visit to our university, we reflect on Dr. Thornton’s groundbreaking tenure at Central. His contributions to physics, academia, and our society serve as an inspiration to academic pursuits here in Mount Pleasant and beyond.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Historic CMU Emergency Shutdowns - Part III

by Bryan Whitledge

Clarke Director Frank Boles
in winter, 2014
Earlier in the week, we posted a piece about historic shutdowns, focusing on the Great Blizzard of '78 and a three-week closure due to a flu epidemic in 1968. In searching for those stories, we missed two major events pointed out to us by Central alumni who remembered their Mother-Nature-induced vacations from classes. So we jumped back in our time machine and revisited the Flood of '86 and the Not-So-Fired-Up Power Outage of '85 in a subsequent blog post. Well, as great as our time machine is (which is really just a collection of digitized newspapers and some super-savvy archivists and librarians who are good searching for information), we've been tipped off by CMU alumni and friends of the Clarke who remember other major weather events that caused trouble for the CMU campus. Thanks to all who have brought these to our attention. With that, we bring you Part III of emergency campus shutdowns. The only thing that seems to make the recent ice storm bearable is reading about the miserable weather suffered by others who have walked the grounds of the CMU campus over the years.

First off is a terrible winter storm that may or may not have caused cancellations at CMU. On Tuesday and Wednesday, January 26 and 27, 1971, a winter storm slammed the Midwest and dozens of schools and businesses closed that day. The Michigan Daily at the University of Michigan reported on it; the Farwell News from of a town just a few miles north of Mt. Pleasant reported on it. And the CM Life reported on it on January 27: "The extremely cold winds and snow closed schools and businesses all over the state, and more bad weather is in store all day today." The blurb was part of a caption featuring an image of a young woman bundled up in a very fluffy, shaggy coat (straight out of 1971 for those who enjoy reminiscing about fashions of the past). It's clear that the weather was awful. But despite that, it seems that Central students trudged through the snow and faced the winds to head to class with no closures or cancellations mentioned in the CM Life.

Spectators at the Polar Plunge supporting Special Olympics, February 2008

The second set of campus closures to mention came more recently, in January and February of 2008. In March that year, the CM Life reported on Academic Senate discussions about adopting a formal "snow day" policy. As the reporter pointed out in the first sentence, that semester was unusual in that there were five days of cancelled classes. Because of the extreme circumstances, the majority of senators did not believe a formal policy was necessary. As one senator was quoted: "I think, while it certainly did impact this semester, time spent on a policy for something that may not happen again for 20 years would be a waste of time." Flash forward 11 years, to 2019 -- and it looks like we are nine years ahead of schedule. In just two weeks, snow, ice, bitter cold, and a polar vortex have forced CMU to cancel or delay classes five times.

As Benjamin Franklin and other great thinkers have said, death and taxes are the only certainties in life. But it seems that horrible weather in Michigan leading to campus shutdowns at CMU every few years could be added to that list.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Historic CMU Emergency Shutdowns: Part II

by Bryan Whitledge


Yesterday, we posted a piece about historic campus shutdowns that we found via the digitized historic campus newspapers (and you can read all of the CM Life and the yearbooks via CMUHistory.cmich.edu!). In our haste to journey back in time to the Great Blizzard of '78 and the flu epidemic of 1968, we skipped two major campus closures. Thanks to members of the CMU Alumni for remembering these extended "vacations," as CM Life referred to them.

First up, Monday, March 4, 1985. That day, a snowstorm passed through Mount Pleasant and brought campus operations to a standstill. Just one week before spring break, students got an extra vacation day. From the reports, it seems like everything would have been up and running the next day and students would finish out the week before heading to Panama City or Daytona... or Lansing. But at 7:00 am Tuesday morning, a lightning bolt struck near Foust Hall and sent a surge of electricity through campus. Most campus buildings lost power and campus was closed for another day. Repair crews worked like mad, but the power was still out for most of campus on Wednesday as well, and campus remained closed. At that point, President Harold Abel met with other campus administrators and decided to cancel classes through the end of the week.

For CMU students in 1985, spring break started a week early. It wasn't until Friday, March 8th that the power was completely restored. With the university closed, followed by spring break, CM Life's first opportunity to report on the less-than-fired-up campus wasn't until the week of March 18.

Just 18 months later, in September 1986, another storm brought campus to its knees. This time, it rained and rained... and rained. From September 9 to 11, it rained nearly 12 inches! Because the campus was inundated and the campus power infrastructure was damaged, University administrators cancelled classes on Thursday, September 11 for two days. University staff members thought they would be able to assess the problems by Friday and have everything back up and running for classes the next week. But that wasn't the case. Campus staff couldn't access the power system until Monday. Then, it took another two days to fully restore power to the campus. In total, students were given five days of "vacation."

We appreciate the memories of Central alumni who fill us in on the stops we missed on our journey back in time. Yesterday, we mentioned that today's students join the ranks of those who survived the Great Blizzard of '78. Today, we can add to that those who survived the Not-So-Fired-Up power outage of '85 and the Flood of '86.