#AskAnArchivist Day: A look at Iowa State’s Special Collections

The freshman beanie was a hat that freshmen were required to wear on campus. At the end of the year there would be a big bonfire in which freshmen threw their hats in as a tradition.

Emily Barske

When walking up the stairs in Parks Library, you might notice notations on the stairs letting you know that Special Collections is on the fourth floor, and that food and drinks are not allowed. That policy is meant to help protect some 3,000 artifacts, manuscripts and collections taking up much of the southwest corner of that level.

The items housed tell the stories of Iowa State and its people. The materials are used for classes, preservation and research purposes. Petrina Jackson, head of Special Collections and University Archives, who has worked at Iowa State Special Collections since April 2016, showed the Daily a few items of significance.

  • The last letter from Jack Trice, the first black athlete at Iowa State, before being killed in the football game resides in the collections. Trice writes: “The honor of my race, family and self is at stake. Everyone is expecting me to do big things. I will.”

  • There is a death mask of Margaret Stanton, who is also memorialized by the Campanile. Death masks are a mold of the deceased person’s face and showed prestige of a person if they had one.

  • In 1916, freshmen were required to wear beanies on their heads. The beanies were typically burned in a ceremonial bonfire after students’ freshman year, but one survived those fires and made its way to the university archives.

  • Minutes from the Board of Trustees — now the Board of Regents — document the university’s decision to be coed and allow students of color to be admitted. Special book weights and supports are used to ensure the quality of the book does not deteriorate.  

The greatest barrier, Jackson said, is getting people to know about Special Collections because people have referred to the archives as the “hidden jewels of the university.” However, they don’t want to be hidden and want people to use the research materials, Jackson said.

“Even though they (the items) are rare and unique, they are meant to be used,” Jackson said. “We don’t want people to be at arm’s length.”

On Oct. 4, the Society of American Archivists celebrates #AskAnArchivist Day, which is meant for the public to ask questions of archivists to better understand the role of archives. The Daily sat down with Jackson to ask about Iowa State’s archives.

Q: On the way up here, we noticed the signage on the stairs. Is that new?

A: That’s a new phenomenon. As you know in other parts of the library, people can eat and drink. But we discourage food here because of the special collections — because those are one-of-a-kind and rare items. If they’re damaged or damaged permanently, that’s it and there’s no coming back from that. We want students, staff, whomever to be as comfortable as possible in the library … but we try to be a little more strict on this floor in order to protect the items that we’re trying to preserve permanently. … We collect things that will last for generations and generations to come.

Q: What is your job like?

A: As head of Special Collections, University Archives, I help manage the big picture and make contact with stakeholders be they in the library, or in the campus community or even outside of that to get donors in. And when I say donors, I mean people who have collection materials that fit our collections. Of course we document the history of the university, we document agriculture and rural life … and we have a strong life sciences collection, engineering. It compliments the major areas of study at the university.

Q: Is everyone on staff here considered an archivist or what makes the distinction?

A: No, everyone is not considered an archivist. To be considered an archivist, everybody has to go to library school — and this is generally speaking, there are some exceptions. So, for instance, I went to the University of Pittsburgh and they have a library school and a strong specialization in archives and records management. Once I got that degree, I was able to apply for professional jobs.

Q: What is your day to day like?

A: When collections come, they don’t come like that (pointing to an organized collection in a box), they come unorganized and in chaos sometimes. Sometimes they come in strong original order, but we have people who are trained to arrange and describe those elements in order for researchers who are doing research in those areas to be able to easily access the materials, to be able to go through it and … to say ‘hey this matches my research area and I need to look at it.’

Q: It seems like there is a wide variety of types of items, what’s the preservation process? I imagine it’s different for a book compared to another item.

A: When items come in, when they are papers or records … they are housed in our archives in acid free boxes, and folders are acid free. They are placed in our closed stacks and they are completely environmentally controlled so it’s temperature controlled, it’s humidity controlled. Everything in there is meant to create a safe place, a really secure place, so it’s much colder than it is out here. … Even our office space is much cooler. I always say ‘we’re trying to preserve the materials and they’re going to preserve us too in the meantime.’

Oversized materials are housed flat. Things like the freshman beanie and the death mask, we work with Preservation on. They help us create a customized box. … If anything is fragile, we take it over to them and say ‘hey can you all look at this?’ You don’t ever want to do something permanent to it, so it’s always a reversible process but we just want to make them more secure and stronger.

Q: Why do you think Special Collections is important to the university?

A: It really documents the university’s history — and with that, legacy. Outside of creating really strong, heads-above-the-rest research, because I do believe that students or whoever comes in here to do research, primary source materials … create something raw, uninterpreted. It creates the most powerful research in my opinion, and the more unusual things, the more groundbreaking types of research. All these things secure legacies. When things come through our door … they help to secure a legacy that is hard to secure when it’s at home, in your attic.