Tucked away about four blocks beyond the main drag of Penn’s campus sits a seemingly ordinary office suite in a nondescript, run-of-the-mill building.
Its entrance is small, its hallways are narrow and its contents remain something of a mystery to the average Penn student.
But inside this 3401 Market St. suite lies well over a million documents chronicling the history of life at Penn.
It’s the home of the University Archives and its job is to document anything and everything there is to know about the University’s past — from Benjamin Franklin’s earliest musings on the state of higher education in Pennsylvania in 1749 to this very edition of The Daily Pennsylvanian in print.
“We have many people who contact us and, by the time they’re done here, end up saying ‘I wish I’d known about you guys sooner,’” University Archives and Records Center Director Mark Frazier Lloyd joked. “Somehow, we’re still one of the best-kept secrets around campus.”
Learning to adapt
Joking aside, however, Lloyd and his staff are currently finding themselves in the midst of uncharted territory for the University Archives.
Created in 1945 as a center for teaching and research on the history of Penn, the Archives has been working to adapt in recent years to something that was never of concern decades ago: the internet.
Lloyd said visits to the Archives have dropped slightly over the years, from about 2,000 per year when he took over as director in 1984 to about 1,600 per year today.
For some, it’s a trend that has caused concern.
“Unless it’s driven by required research for a class, we’re not seeing too many students come in anymore,” senior archivist Jim Duffin said.
“We’d like to see that change, since knowing how to use an archives system is still very important to primary research skills,” added Joseph-James Ahern, another senior archivist.
But for Lloyd, what’s been lost through in-person research consultations has been more than made up through the internet.
Lloyd said increasing the presence of archived materials online has been the centerpiece of his development plan over the past 16 years. About 15 percent of the Archives’ resources are currently accessible online, Lloyd said. His goal is to double that within the next decade.
Over the past five years, the number of page views of the Archives’ website has increased substantially, to the point where more than one million views have come to be expected per year.
“The bottom line is that utilization of archival resources at Penn has greatly increased over the years,” Lloyd said.
“The Web has enabled us to reach a vastly greater audience than we ever could through personal visitation,” he added. “Could you imagine what would happen if a million people came through our doors? It’d be impossible to handle.”
Preserving Penn’s past
Once you enter the “vaults” of the University Archives — as Lloyd colloquially refers to his office’s 15,000 cubic feet of collections — there’s no knowing what you might find.
Look one way and you may be face to face with a complete collection of the meeting minutes from Penn’s first-ever Board of Trustees, which convened in 1749 with Ben Franklin at the helm.
Turn the corner and you may find yourself in front of the 1750 land deed to the University’s first campus on Fourth and Arch streets.
“What’s in the Archives is a hidden gem of the University,” said History professor Walter Licht, who has co-taught a course with Lloyd on the history of West Philadelphia. “I’ve always pushed for more students to think of the Archives as a place to generate term papers, especially honors theses.”
College senior Caleb Bradham, who studied with Lloyd and Licht during his freshman year, added that “a lot more librarians at Penn should be pointing students to the Archives as a research space.”
Physically, the contents of the University Archives are divided among three main rooms.
In the first room, referred to as “Stacks A,” researchers can access the most heavily requested materials in the Archives — for example, the files of about 450,000 deceased Penn alumni, as well as scores of photographs that document the development of the University from day one.
In the second room, “Stacks B,” the Archives houses its stock of oversized materials, which includes objects like posters from student organizations and large maps of real estate planning.
The third room, “Stacks C,” plays host to the largest number of resources, including the the personal and professional papers of prominent individuals associated with the University.
Graduate School of Education professor John Puckett, who is co-authoring a book on the history of Penn since World War II with Lloyd, said the overall organization of the University Archives “makes it light years better than any other archives I’ve worked at before.”
College junior Luke Poethig, who worked at the Archives this past summer as a Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships humanities intern, agreed.
“There’s definitely a perception around campus that the Archives is just a storage space for random materials,” Poethig said. “That’s not the case at all. What’s inside there is an incredibly fascinating tool for any Penn scholar.”
Building a collection
The University Archives, Lloyd explained, is modeled off the system employed at the National Archives and Record Administration in Washington, D.C.
At the National Archives, Lloyd said, “they capture documents early in their life cycle, funnel them through an appraisal process and narrow them down to a small percentage that have historical significance.”
The goal is very much the same at Penn.
Lloyd said much of his time is spent encouraging University administrators, faculty and students to send their records — regardless of how small or trivial they may seem — to the Archives for historical preservation.
“Some offices and individuals seek us out with materials, but for the most part we do more seeking than we are sought after,” he said.
The Archives’ model “is ideal because it takes stewardship of historically significant records shortly after their creation and shepherds them through a process that ultimately benefits everyone,” Lloyd added.
Though Lloyd said a majority of campus individuals and organizations are willing to share their materials with the Archives, he acknowledged that, since the process is voluntary, some groups decline to participate.
For instance, the Philomathean Society maintains an independent collection of its own organizational history, which is housed on the fourth floor of College Hall.
“The fact that Philo holds its own papers is partially the result of [us] being older than any other organization on campus, as well as most campus institutions,” College senior Emily Kern, Philo’s moderator, wrote in an email. “Having immediate access to [our] materials is crucially important for our projects, and we really wouldn’t be able to do many of the things we do if our materials were held offsite or by another university entity.”
Lloyd added that there have also been concerns over security and preservation of documents.
Though “theft is not a problem at the Archives,” he said special measures have been taken to ensure the safety of all materials.
For instance, researchers are not permitted to bring any documents with them beyond the confines of one of the Archives’ reading rooms.
To preserve the quality of archived collections, he added, his office has a special temperature and humidity-control mechanism. Acid-free file folders and light-resistant containers are also used to mitigate any natural deterioration that may occur over time.
An unchanged mission
In 2009, Lloyd and his staff moved out of their former home in the north corner of Franklin Field — which is now occupied by the George A. Weiss Pavilion — to their current location on Market Street.
Penn President Amy Gutmann, who was a strong proponent of the move a few years back, said “the Archives really needed better space than what they had, and they needed more room to work with.”
Gutmann added that Lloyd has done a “fantastic” job during his time at the University.
“We like to think a university like Penn is here forever,” she said, “and it’s really important to know our past.”
While much of Lloyd’s attention in recent years has been focused on new digitization technologies, he said the core mission of the Archives remains unchanged: to ensure the timeless preservation of Penn’s collective history.
As Lloyd finishes examining one of the first corporate charters given to the University in the 1750s, a sense of pride and respect is evident.
“The cover might have some scratches and marks,” he says as he looks through the document, “but as long as we’re here, what’s inside will be preserved forever.”Comments powered by Disqus
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