Steve Ammidown is one of our participants in the Year in the Life series, which follows new archivists in their first professional position for a year. You can read his previous posts here.
Your Private School Needs an Archivist
The title of this month’s entry is a little specific, but bear with me. This month marks the end of my first year in this position, and that anniversary has me reflecting on the uniqueness and necessity of the job. From conversations with colleagues, I think a lot of this translates across institutions.
I’m looking at my work table, strewn with photographs that tell the history of our Upper School Library. This week marks the 105th anniversary of its initial dedication and we’re having a little celebration to mark the occasion. The school building opened in 1910, but the library space was not finished until the following February. The money for the furnishings and books in the library came from Elisabeth Gilman, daughter of our school’s namesake and notable Baltimorean in her own right. Notes from the dedication point out that Daniel Coit Gilman had been librarian at Yale College before becoming a world-renowned educator and first president of Johns Hopkins University, making the gift especially apt. The first librarian in the new building was Hamlet Stanley Philpot, a teacher of Latin and Greek with a colorful past.
That example? That’s why your private school needs an archivist.
We are marking the 105th anniversary because no one knew to mark the 100th five years ago. The photographs covering my work space are gathered from half a dozen sources, begging to be reunited. It was a close reading of a school newspaper from 1911 that yielded the date of the dedication along with the full text of the speech given that day. It’s been a lot of work, but it’s my job.
Private schools, or any school with a hundred years of history really, have anniversaries like this pass unnoticed almost every day of the week. Without an archivist, there is no one to do the sort of deep dives required to tell the complete story of the school’s history. There may be a teacher near retirement or librarian devoting a few hours a week to the topic, but they have other concerns or might only be interested in a narrow slice of history. The past needs more attention than that.
Over the past year I’ve come to realize something about private schools that probably applies across institutions. The state of any particular school’s archives is representative of that school’s commitment to its history and its understanding of how that history shapes the institution’s future. To put an even finer point on it- I see my primary task as reminding people why they love this school. For a school with almost 120 years of history and thousands of alumni, how could that not be a full-time dedicated position? In near-constant competition for students and donations, private schools are always drawing on their reputation and traditions- they should be relying on dedicated archivists to keep those things alive.