The USF Archives: Sentiment and Strangeness

Lone Mountain stands alone before the Golden Gate Bridge was built. PHOTO COURTESY OF USF ARCHIVES

Tucked away in the bowels of Gleeson Library lies the University’s archives. Filled with tall filing shelves and a bracing breeze, the archives holds USF’s history and provides glimpses into the past, of students and faculty long ago. 

Much of the collection is student organization information: meeting minutes, yearbooks, even some old student films. But occasionally, Maura Wilson, the Special Collections and University Archives assistant, says the archives will have more surprising objects. “As we go through the collection so many things pop up that are just like, ‘what the heck are you and how did you get here?’”

Strange artifacts include a petrified lichen the size of a cowboy hat, nicknamed “the magic mushroom,” that was given to former USF President Father William McInnes on a trip to Japan in the ‘70s. Or how about a 50-inch stuffed fish that once hung in former USF President Father John Lo Schiavo’s office?

Father William Mcinnes laughs with his “magic mushroom”. PHOTO COURTESY OF USF ARCHIVES

Not everything in the archives is as eye-catching as a mummified mushroom, but Talulah Freed, a first-year student majoring in Art History and Museum Studies and archival research student assistant hopes that won’t turn prospective researchers away. 

“Archives are important because they allow people to piece together the history of an institution using unbiased primary sources,” said Freed. “The material in the archives offers a truthful look into the past.”

Whether exploring old yearbooks filled with retro haircuts and men in fine suits, or browsing through the often sassy articles of the former Foghorn staff, the material in the archives gives a good sense of what campus life was like decades ago, and how some USF experiences stay the same no matter the time period.

“There’s some similarities where students are complaining about the state of the dorms or the food or parking,” said Annie Reid, the University’s archivist. “Those kinds of student experiences have really stayed the same over time.”

The archives serve as a good reflection on what life at USF was like since its initiation, even dating back to 1855 as St. Ignatius Academy. Unfortunately, a lot of the material in the archives from the pre-1900s was damaged or destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire that devastated San Francisco. Some relics still remain, like a crumbling and fire-damaged ledger that recorded how much milk the St. Ignatius Academy bought in a year.

“Obviously nowadays we do our best to prevent [damages to the archives] from happening, but when you’re maintaining physical historic records like that it is sort of an occupational hazard that stuff might happen to it,” said Wilson. 

Preserving the materials in the archives includes using acid-free folders for pictures and papers so they don’t turn yellow and crumble, as well as using certain enclosures meant to protect materials from moisture and light. The archives also works extensively to digitize what they can of their collection, and it is available for browsing on their website.

The USF community and the general public also have physical access to the material in the archives, but it doesn’t work like a typical library would. Instead of checking out and taking home valuable and fragile records and books, the archives invite people to make appointments for supervised examination of the materials.

“We really want to encourage students and faculty to access these things,” said Reid. “That’s why we maintain them and that’s why we keep them.”

Not everything in the archives is for public viewing. Some of the material is “restricted,” meaning it can only be accessed after a certain amount of time has passed, or possibly never be made available to the public at all. This could be for a myriad of reasons, such as legal requirements under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

“People have all sorts of reasons why they would restrict things,” said Reid. “We encourage them not to do that but if it’s something they’re donating we want to respect their wishes.” 

The artifacts in the archives create a snapshot of the identity and legacy of USF throughout decades, social climates, and experiences which we can learn from today.

“What we’re trying to do is preserve and maintain the cultural memory of the institution,” said Reid. “We want to be able to hold the institution accountable for its decisions that it’s made over time. And so we can go back and look at decisions that the administration or the student senate were making, and reflect on and interpret that history.”

Wilson added, “Once you feel like you’re a part of that culture, you can play an active part, inspire change, and be part of the growth and change of the institution.”

October is American Archives month. This article was made in collaboration with USFtv. To see and learn more about the archives go to sffoghorn.com/category/usftv/. USF’s digital collections can be found at digitalcollections.usfca.edu/

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