Looking to the future of saving the past

We’ve read a lot lately about how the digital world is changing the business of collecting and preserving the past. What does the saving of history look like in the future? We had a discussion about it with Dawne Dewey, the head of Special Collections & Archives at Wright State University, housed on the top floor of the Dunbar Library on campus. She’s also director of public history. Here’s our conversation. To learn more about the archive, visit www.libraries.wright.edu/special — Ron Rollins

Q: Can you describe the archive, for anyone who isn’t familiar with it?

A: It’s an amazing place. We have collections so vast and remarkable for a university the size that we are. We collect in three main areas. First and foremost is aviation history. The Wright brothers collection is the foundation of it, of course, and is the collection that put us on the map internationally. But there is so much more here that has to do with aviation and aerospace history. We have a lot of material on the history of the parachute, for instance. Vast material on the history of vertical flight and helicopters. We have millions of photos of various aircraft through many decades. Wright State has one of the few civilian aerospace medical programs in the country, and so we have a lot of material about aerospace medicine and human factors engineering. We have the pioneers of flight here, but also we have collections about space flight and new technology.

Q: What are the other main areas?

A: The next is local and regional history. Our collection is phenomenal — we have the papers of the Kettering family, the Pattersons, more. We have material on just about any historical topic anyone would be interested in — military, religious, family history, civic organizations, women’s history, local government. All the area’s major arts organizations have their collections here — the Dayton Philharmonic, the Victoria Theatre Association, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, the Ballet, Dayton Playhouse. We have the papers of many political figures, such as Ambassador Tony Hall and James H. McGee, Dayton’s first African-American mayor. We have the papers of Katherine Kennedy Brown, who was a major mover and shaker in the Republican Party in the early 20th century and lived here. We have the papers of the Dayton Socialist Party.

Q: There was a Dayton Socialist Party?

A: There was! We have so many different collections — arts, literature, invention and innovation, and the lives of ordinary people who lived here. Letters, diaries, albums, photographs, films, scrapbooks, oral histories.

Q: What’s the third category?

A: The university’s history. We’re the official repository of the records of the university. Wright State will be 50 years old in 2017, and for a school this young, there’s still really a lot to talk about.You can learn so much from the life of a university like this — student life through the decades, campus politics, things like the anti-war movement on campus in the 1960s and ‘70s. We have material on all that. We once did an exhibition on the evolution of student dress through the decades, which was fun for those of us who lived through it, bell-bottoms and all. There’s so much history that is overlooked, too — you can learn so much just from studying old student newspapers, to see what their concerns were through time.

Q: Interesting stuff.

A: Yes, and we’re also more than the collections. We want people to see us more than just a place where we store and preserve stuff — we also have lots of outreach and educational programs here and in the community, where we try to let people know about what we have here, and to encourage them to come in and use the materials. To just be excited about history.

Q: For instance?

A: We do a lot of programs on the 1913 flood, and on aviation history. I do a talk I call “Women With Nerve: Celebrating Women in Dayton at the Turn of the 20th Century.” We worked with the Engineers Club of Dayton a while back to do an exhibition about their 100th anniversary. We get lots of tour groups and school groups. We teach teachers and students how to use primary sources and what you can learn from letters, photos, diaries, original speeches. We’re invited back year after year.

Q: Isn’t the archive part of a statewide collection network of some sort?

A: We are. In the 1970s, the Ohio Historical Society realized it couldn’t take in everything from around the state, and so it established the Ohio Network of American History Research Centers. Wright State was still fairly young, but we were one of the founders of the network, and took responsibility for this part of Ohio — Shelby, Auglaize, Preble, Darke, Clark, Miami, Montgomery, Greene, Champaign, Logan counties. Focusing on those counties is what guides our collection policy and what we bring in.

Q: So, what if someone wants to give you a Civil War letter from someone who lived near Cleveland?

A: We would find the best home for it and make sure it was placed there. The idea, remember, is to have items organized in a way where somebody would think to go see them. So, if somebody wants to research Dayton or the surrounding counties, they would know to come to Wright State. Now, our aviation collection is different — it’s worldwide, covering all time periods. It transcends the Ohio network.

Q: Do you seek out and solicit items, or just accept what you’re brought?

A: Both. Our first collection came to us about 1969 — the Gov. James M. Cox papers, which started the ball rolling and created the archives. A lot of what we get is via word of mouth — we have a strong reputation for responsible preservation, care and access, so a lot of satisfied customers will pass along a good word that leads to other donations. But we also solicit collections — we keep abreast of what’s going on in the area, such as businesses closing, individuals retiring, and we may approach them. We stay in tune with what happened in the past, but also what is happening today — we try to collect history as it’s happening now. Not wait for something to become history, but collect it as it happens. We also purchase collections, on occasion. We have a small endowment for it. A few years ago, we bought a beautiful set of aviation lithographs made in Paris in 1909. And just a few weeks ago, a dealer found us from one of our social posts and asked if we’d be interested in a letter that was written by the wife of the surgeon who took care of Orville Wright after his near-fatal flying accident at Ft. Myer, Va., in 1908. She was there, and described what she saw.

Q: I bet Tom Crouch and David McCullough would’ve loved to have known about that.

A: I know! It just appeared!

Q: How does it feel to make that kind of discovery?

A: It’s so exciting. Especially with the Wright brothers collection, you sort of think we’ve seen it all, that nothing new could emerge that would surprise us — but then it happens. When you reach into that envelope or box and have your hands on something like that letter, getting to touch a piece of history and share it with people for the first time, it’s really something. I’ll never forget the first collection I was assigned to organize, the papers of the Wallace family from Clark County — a remarkable collection of several generations of family life. I found a packet of Civil War letters, about 50, tied with string. And as I opened them it was obvious no one had read these in over 100 years — that I was the first person to handle this soldier’s letters home since the person who’d received them had read them and tucked them away. That’s just so wonderful to experience.

Q: Do you try to balance the collections in any way?

A: We review our collection policies every year, and look at where we’re weak. There are a couple of areas we need to enhance. One is local ethnic history. Another is local broadcast history. We don’t have much on that. Another is Dayton’s popular-music history, starting with the 1970s funk era — the Ohio Players and others. Gino Pasi, one of our archivists, is talking to local people in the music scene, and getting them to donate stuff, to make sure their work is protected. Like so many other areas, Dayton has a very rich music scene.

Q: What do you think it is about Dayton, that way?

A: I don’t know. Everyone says it. Every week, we learn some new thing that came from this area, and we’re saying, “Really, that came from Dayton, too?” It never ceases to amaze me. Why Dayton, with all this invention and creativity? It’s not in the water, but it’s definitely there. There’s just something special about this place.

Q: Are you from here?

A: I’m a Hoosier, actually. From farmers. My father was a farmer who got tired of the farm and became a pilot, and he flew for a cargo company doing Air Force contracts. We lived all over the country and then settled here, and he flew out of Wright-Patterson. So I finished high school here, and my husband and I live in a log cabin we built in Miami County. See, I’m really into history.

Q: And Wright State?

A: I went to school here, got my BA in anthropology and history in 1980. Wasn’t sure what to do, and saw WSU had a master’s in history focusing on archives and museum studies. After we had our kids, I went back to school for that and got an archivist position here in 1989. I fell in love with the job and became head of archives in 1997.

Q: What are some of the challenges?

A: The challenges come from the cost of preserving these treasures — providing appropriate facilities and the environment to protect the material and also provide a destination for people to see it. You have to balance preserving it and letting people use and touch it. For this particular archive, we’re a victim of our own success — we have done a really great job of collecting, so that now we’re bursting at the seams. We’re at a point in our history were we’ve got to expand our facilities and staff so that we can carry out the really cool things we want to do. That will take more financial support.

Q: What’s the plan?

A: Oh, I’ve got such big ideas — my vision, and the university’s. We’re one of the mini-campaigns within the university’s overall capital campaign. Wright State definitely recognizes the value of the archive and what it brings to the university and the wider community. So we’re working on fundraising now to establish a new facility for the archive. We’re not sure where it will be yet, but it will likely repurpose an existing building in the area. We want to remain on or near the campus.

Q: What will it look like?

A: We need a reading room, where people can touch history. We want a museum-quality gallery, where we can exhibit our own material or bring in exhibitions from outside, such as from the Smithsonian, to be a destination. We need classrooms, and multi-media history lab — a place where patrons can hear audio and see films we have in the collection. And I’d love to have maker’s spaces — I don’t know any archive that has maker’s spaces, places people can come in record oral histories of family members, important people in the community. What if we had a studio? I could see journalism happening here, too, showing the relationship between journalism and history, how it informs the present and the future. Or a maker’s space for engineering and technology, or one dedicated to the arts. What if you brought in artists, writers, musicians to create works inspired by materials in the collection? Where they become inspiration?

Q: That would be cool. What are your needs for the collection itself?

A: We need better temperature and humidity controls — we have glass plates, nitrate film, and all kinds of paper, from newsprint to books to artworks to blueprints. We need a fully equipped preservation lab to do processing work. Storage space, a loading dock. Our current physical footprint is about 12,000 square feet, in two buildings — we run back and forth all the time. The Dayton Daily News archive is in our second building, in fact. We have 15,000 linear feet in the collection, that’s how we measure it. And it’s growing all the time. We’ve projected out, and if we doubled our space now, we would still need to expand in five years. But really, we want to create a space where people can come in and touch and experience history and be inspired by it. A lot of people think an archive is just for the serious scholar, but that’s just not the case any more. We’re so much more now than when I started here. We’ve gone from a pretty tiny operation to what I consider a pretty substantial operation today. I mean, who knew we would ever have a forensic work station?

Q: Which is what, exactly?

A: We have so much we collect now that is electronic — it’s a stand-alone computer with all kinds of different drives so that when electronic records come in, we can examine them without infecting them when we do the processing. What program? What file sizes? How are they organized? Are there any bugs? How do we preserve them? How do we provide access? We have two staffers who have established an e-archive with dedicated server space for all the electronic records we bring in. And we’re also digitizing our collections — and in doing so, we find all kinds of new things. When we were digitizing our original Wright brothers films, we found one of Orville opening Christmas presents with his nieces and nephews at Hawthorn Hill in 1947 or so, shortly before he died. We found film of Lindbergh landing in Dayton in the 1920s. Orville watching his nephews playing and sledding at Hawthorn Hill. Revealing new stories is just amazing.

Q: What’s the timeline for the move?

A: It better happen before I retire, because I want to work in this new building. But it needs to happen in the next two, three years, if not sooner. Five years ago? As soon as we can do it.

Q: You mentioned electronic records, but how has the change to a digital world affected archiving? Is it harder?

A: It’s generally more challenging. People have the mindset that something digital lasts forever, but that’s not necessarily true. Technology changes all the time. It’s more of a challenge to manage electronic content — it’s not just taking paper and safely storing it in boxes. You have to evaluate its condition. Is it still the same? Photos we scanned in the ’90s — now we have much better equipment for it. If it was born digital, will it degrade over time? Will we always have the machines we need to read it? Who owns it? What is the copyright? It’s more challenging today — and there’s more of it. We always need more server space. We’ll eventually have more records on servers than in boxes.

Q: It’s been quite a rapid change.

A: It has. I’ve thought often in the last 10 years, I tell students today, how lucky I was to be an archivist in an age where we can still discover things like new Civil War letters, or the letter from the surgeon’s wife — young professionals today won’t have as many physical things to care for. I don’t know if it will be as much fun for them.

Q: What will you miss about it, some day?

A: I think the part of my job I love most is meeting all the creators of this history — that I’ve gotten to go out in the community and work with and learn from all these people whose family papers we were gathering, for instance. They’re now my friends, a whole community of people I met because of my job. Getting to make these discoveries. I’m always amazed at the things in the boxes here. I’ve not looked in every single box, none of us has, there’s too much — but I always tell myself I should just grab a box a day and see what’s in it. Find the surprise inside. There’s so much rich material here — and getting to share it with people is so special. We can take it for granted, forget what we have here — and when people see it for the first time, watching them at that moment when they’re holding something original and amazing — when you say, “Here, hold this.” I think I’ll miss that. But I’m not done yet. It’s still too much fun to come to work.

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