Learning Institutional History

From the North Avenue Presbyterian School's Principal's Records. History of NAPS, 1909-1951 by Principal Thyrza Askew, 1954. From The Westminster Schools Archives collection.

Introduction to Story of NAPS, 1909-1951 by Principal Thyrza Askew, 1957. From the collection of The Westminster Schools Archives, Atlanta, Georgia.

From the collection of The Westminster Schools Archives, Atlanta, Georgia.

From the collection of The Westminster Schools Archives, Atlanta, Georgia.

Some of you are either alums, parents, or long-time volunteers and may know the history of your institution. Some of you, like me, are coming into the position of archivist with little to no knowledge of the school, and have to catch up. One of the primary requirements for this job is to acquire an intimate knowledge of the history of the school, not only to be able to answer reference questions, but also to:

  1. Understand the organization of the school over time–this will influence the archives’ record groups or collection organization.
  2. Realize where there may be gaps in the collection, and who may supply the needed materials.

So how do you go about learning the history, if you do not know it already? Or how do you gain a deeper knowledge of your alma mater, moving beyond the common knowledge?

Yearbooks. This is a great first step, as browsing through these books will give you a sense of the school, learning about the traditions, students, administrations, and places on campus.

Published Works. In case your school has been around for a while, there may be books published by former students, teachers, or administrators, usually produced for an anniversary. Be aware that some of the histories may be a bit rosy, and may not include all the details that you need for your work. However, these books will provide a great overview of the beginnings and important milestones of the school.

Unpublished Works. There may be manuscripts within the collection where a teacher or administrator had attempted to pull together facts about the school, but which never made it to press or only had a small, local run. Often these were compiled by those who had first-hand knowledge of the school and important transitions.

Scrapbooks. Chances are that you already have some of these in your collection, and could contain either photographs, newspaper clippings, or both. These will provide a small window into snippets of the school’s history which may not be represented in other places.

School Publications. Hopefully in your collection will be the student newspapers, literary magazines, and alumni magazines for multiple years. Reading through these can give you a sense not only of the school at that time but also of the era. There may be descriptions of traditions/events, school sports, student awards, faculty arrivals/departures, prominent alumnae stories, and photographs or illustrations of the people or school grounds.

Alumnae. Speaking with the former students, if possible, is such a great way to fill in gaps of knowledge. As with any history, the perspective means everything. Learning more about an individual’s experience at the school will help to see it in their eyes, and the more people with whom you speak, the broader picture will emerge. Make sure to stay in regular contact with your Alumni Office. You will be working hand-in-hand on many projects.

In time, you will feel as if you have always been at the school and your knowledge will help guide you in your mission statement, collection policies, donor relations, and will enhance the reference experience. Happy researching!


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