Tuesday, August 31, 2021

A Final Word

Frank Boles

Since 1991, I have had the privilege of serving as the director of the Clarke Historical Library. During that time, I have benefited from the advice and help of many people, to whom I offer my deepest thanks, and for whom I hold the highest regard. They have helped the library accomplish not simply annual goals, but perform a fundamental societal mission of preserving our individual and collective memory.

The Clarke Family

The Clarke Historical Library was founded in 1954 by a generous gift from Dr. Norman Clarke Sr. to his alma mater, Central Michigan University. Dr. Clarke Sr. wrote into the donation agreement an ongoing role for himself and his family. It is a testament to the family’s interest that after Norm Clarke Sr. died, his son Dr. Norman Clarke Jr. continued to represent the family within the library. When Norm Jr. died, his son Norman Clarke III assumed the role of family representative.

The continuity created by the presence of first, the donor, and later, his family gives the Clarke Historical Library an opportunity that few “named” libraries have. It allows us not only to be guided by the purposes established by the founder, but it also creates an opportunity to speak with the family about how changing times might cause us to re-interpret the founder’s statements. Dr. Norman Clarke Sr. was a visionary, but after sixty-seven years even a visionary’s ideas need some adjusting.

I am extremely grateful for the guidance of the late Norman Clarke Jr. and his son Norman Clarke III, the family’s current official representative. My thanks also to James Frye, a grandson of Norman Clarke Sr., who also carries on the legacy of his grandfather in stewarding the library.

The Library’s Board of Governors

The Clarke Historical Library is unique among CMU units in that it has, by terms of the agreement signed with the library’s founder, a separate Board of Governors. The Clarke Board consists of a family representative, four University officials, and five members nominated by the Clarke Board for service and whose selection is confirmed by CMU’s Board of Trustees.

The truth is Boards can be tremendous advocates and also significant pains in the behind. Board members bring fresh insights to the library and sometimes can persuade senior university administrators to adopt opinions that might not be well received coming from a mere library director. But Board members can also micromanage and insist on things best understood (maybe only understood) by them. Fortunately for me, the members of the Clarke Board of Governors have been powerful influences for the better and usually left the messy intricacies of library administration to the library administration. I am grateful for the hard work, good advice, and sympathetic ears given by all those who have taken on the obligations of Board membership.

Although many individuals have served on the Board, let me thank all of them by thanking the current members for their service, including the family representative Norman Clarke III, the three university officers who serve on the board ex-officio–President Robert Davies, Dean Kathy Irwin, the chair of the Department of History, Greg Smith, the five elected members, Board chair Carla Hills, Michael Federspiel, Robert Kohrman, Carlin Smith, Larry Wagenaar, and emeritus member Sandra Bell Croll.

The Dean’s Office

There is a standing joke in the Clarke that I am going “upstairs” to the Dean’s Office to beg for something. I cannot count the number of times I have found my way into the Dean’s Office explaining some “wonderful” opportunity (please note, they were all “wonderful” unless they are also “extraordinary.” That’s my story and I’m sticking to it) that the Clarke could take advantage of, if we could find a bit more money. And most often, the dean found the money.

But the Clarke Historical Library’s relationship with both the dean and the University Library is about much more than about successful begging for dollars. It was about an understanding of and the support for aspirations not always shared at CMU. When CMU compares itself to “peer” institutions the usual suspects are the other schools that compose the MAC sports conference. When I compare the Clarke Historical Library to other special collection libraries, my “peer” group was invariably Big Ten schools, such as the University of Michigan.  

That significant jump in size and scope was something that the dean was sympathetic to and helped nurture. The dean didn’t have to do this–I know many colleagues at other institutions who, when they made this kind of argument, were told that while the administration understood, it wasn’t “feasible.” I was allowed to develop the library aspirationally, rather than being told to think less ambitiously because of existing institutional parameters. The Clarke Historical Library could play with the big kids, and is, in fact, part of their club.

A less fortunate friend once described the institutional support I received by saying, “you’re a lucky guy.” I have indeed been very lucky into whom I reported. I owe a great debt both to Tom Moore, the retired Dean of Libraries, and Kathy Irwin, the current Dean. Without their support, the Clarke would be a much smaller place.

The Clarke Historical Library Staff

I cannot write enough words or find ones that are sufficiently praiseworthy to describe the Clarke staff with whom I have worked. They are the people who, every day, make things happen. They supply the reference service for which we are justly praised. They undertake the “backroom” work that prepares books and archival material for use and enables excellent reference. They do outreach, whether it is planning for speakers, creating beautiful and informative exhibits, making hundreds of thousands of pages from Michigan newspapers available online, or building the subset of CMU’s website that is most visited by people not affiliated with the university. I am so much in their debt I don’t know where to begin to express my thanks.

Given that dilemma let me thank all those I have worked with me by naming and thanking the current staff: Christa Clare, C.J. Eno, Megan Farrell, Marian Matyn, Laura Thompson, Samuel Tibebe, and Bryan Whitledge. Let me also thank two recently retired Clarke staff members, John Fierst and Tanya Fox and another recent retiree from the University Library, Janet Danek, who while she was technically on the Libraries staff also designed exhibits in the Clarke Library galleries. They all perform their assignments with extraordinary merit.

And I hope all of the staff, current and retired, will understand my need to express a special thank you to Christa Clare, who met me at the door my first day on the job and amazingly will be here on the day I walk out for the last time. She has stories – I just hope she won’t tell them.

My thanks also to our student employees. Their energy and work are amazing, and they are always very polite to the old guy, particularly when I start making references to ancient sit-coms that both aired and went out of syndication before they were born. Some of the student employees even know who Gilligan is, although they may not understand why an island was named for him.

The Donors

For all the effort shown by the Clarke staff, it is really the donors that make everything work. There are simply too many donors to thank each of you by name. I know this from painful experience. We tried every year, and usually missed someone.

I cherish each of you as individuals I am pleased to have known, and for the things you have made it possible for the library to do. Three-quarters of the material received by the library arrives as gifts-in-kind. What doesn’t get carted in the door is often purchased with money from donors.

If there are too many donors to thank each by name, let me at least pay special thanks to a small group of donors who, during my time as director, took the extraordinary step of creating an endowment or serving as the major funder of an endowment campaign. These include the late Amanda Boulton, Eunice Burgess, Susan and Robert Clarke (not related to the original donor family), Sandra Bell Croll, Michael Federspiel, Robert Graham, in memory of his wife and daughter, Christa Kamenetsky, Robert and Charles Knapp in memory of their parents, Robert Kohrman, the late Leon and Francis McDermott, Hank Meijer, , Francis and Mary Lois Molson, the late Susan Stan, the late Bill Strickler (whose endowment is housed in the Mt. Pleasant Area Community Foundation) and Jack and Mary Lou Westbrook.

And My Family

More times than I care to count, the responsibilities of being director impacted my family, usually not in a good way. Evenings spent at speaker presentations, road trips to visit donors or to professional conferences–there always seemed to be a need to be gone, and a need for their understanding why. My deepest thanks go to my wife, Valerie, our surviving son Nick, and our deceased son Matt.

A Closing Invocation

What I am most grateful for is that all the effort and support I have described acknowledges the important work done by the Clarke Historical Library. Sometimes, people dismiss what libraries like this one do as unimportant to “the real world.” That is a mistake that values short-term goals over matters of existential importance. In a speech I presented many years ago, and in a slightly different context, I said,

“We cause to be remembered triumph and tragedy. We give voice to those who can no longer speak. We preserve memories for those who can no longer remember. … We are the stewards of humanity’s legacy.”  What special collections libraries and archives do “explains who we are. It explains why we are. It opens a window to our individual and collective soul. Archives are, and will remain, that place where, above everything else, the soul of a person and of a community is both preserved and laid bare. Insofar as any human can find truth, truth is in our holdings. Insofar as any human can find immortality, immortality is in our stacks.”

As I retire, I am humbled by and grateful for all those who have shared this generous vision of what the library does. Your support has made possible what has been accomplished.

I hope you will continue to support the stewardship of humanity’s legacy found within the Clarke Historical Library.