May 6th, 2019
Purdue at 150: A Visual History of Student Life by David M. Hovde, Adriana Harmeyer, Neal Harmeyer, and Sammie L. Morris with a Foreword by Drew and Brittany Brees tells Purdue’s story through rare images, artifacts, and words. The authors culled decades of student papers from scrapbooks, yearbooks, letters, and newspapers to historical photographs and memorabilia preserved in the Purdue University Libraries Virginia Kelley Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center. Many of the images and artifacts included have never been published, presenting a unique history of the land-grant university from the student perspective.
What prompted the authors to undertake such a monumental task? Where do you start when you have the entirety of the archives as your source? We asked the authors to take us inside the process of making Purdue at 150.
Q: What prompted you to start this project?
David Hovde: I have spent most of my writing career, beginning in 1973, writing historical works. When I started to work in the Archives and Special Collections in 2006, I read everything I could about the history of Purdue using primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. Then, I started to teach classes about how to do historical research using archival resources. I quickly noticed that the students were far more attentive when I discussed material created by students from Purdue’s past rather than material about presidents and famous faculty. The students could relate to the students of the past. At the same time, I noted that few official histories really discussed students and their lives on campus. Their voices were largely silent. Since I have a long-standing interest in folklore, I also noticed how much of the campus folklore had little basis in fact. For a number of years, I mulled over the idea writing a book about student life and student customs and traditions. When the sesquicentennial was approaching, I presented the idea to Sammie Morris and the entire staff, and the rest so to speak is history. The book is a bit different than what I had envisioned years ago, but this is a collaborative effort and that collaboration brilliantly highlights the collections in the Purdue University Archives and Special Collections and is strengthened by the many voices of those who contributed to the final product.
Sammie Morris: The Archives and Special Collections unit began discussing and preparing for the Purdue sesquicentennial many years in advance. One thing we discussed early on was a coffee table type book that would include beautiful realistic facsimiles of treasures from the Archives that provide evidence of Purdue’s past. We tossed around ideas about a scrapbook style album, or something featuring historical images and student memorabilia. David Hovde had a suggestion that we work together on a book project and there was a lot of enthusiasm amongst the staff in the Archives on taking on this challenge. From the start, it was important to me that we focus on filling in gaps in the past histories of Purdue by telling stories of some of the lesser known individuals and events in our history. As John Norberg worked to create an updated comprehensive Purdue history we differentiated our books by focusing solely on student experiences and featuring only items that are part of the Archives and Special Collections’ holdings. In this way, we let the evidence existing in the Archives tell the story of Purdue’s past students, while being aware that there are many gaps in the archival record that we would like to fill and enhance in the future.
Q: How does one start the process of gathering all the materials needed for a project like this?
David: I began my post-college career as an archaeologist. Archival research is like archaeology. On a dig, you slowly and carefully peel back the layers of soil, recording the artifacts and their places on the site both horizontally and vertically and place each artifact in context with all the others on the site, sites in the region, and the time period the site represents. Archival research is much the same. Each document or artifact is a story and part of a larger whole. Each file, photograph, or box is a layer, and each relates to all the other files and boxes that tell the story of the site. A document is an artifact, a collection a layer, and each relates to other artifacts and collections temporally and spatially. The site in this case is the history of Purdue University. Each document, photograph, and artifact is equally as important as the others, and together they contribute to the story. This book has fifteen cultural layers that make up the site known as Purdue University.
As with any project, one starts looking at the secondary and tertiary sources and then the voice is chosen. In this case, the voice was the students. Then the structure is developed, and the researchers begins to look for primary sources, scrapbooks, photographs, letters, documents, etc., that bring the voice of the participant in the story to the forefront and gives the story life.
Prior to this, I had written a number of short articles about student traditions that would be the basis for a web site about Purdue student customs and traditions and to aid the staff to help students and researchers with questions about such things. These became elements of the future book. No one person in this collaboration knows all the collections. The authors each have their expertise and individual interests, but all wanted to give voice to the students who came and went over the past 145 years.
Adriana Harmeyer: We decided early on that we would let the archival materials tell the story. We reviewed the items in the Archives, thought about which ones are most interesting, surprising, and engaging, and built the story from there. There are some seminal moments and traditions that we knew would have to be included and were able to find archival materials that would illustrate them.
Sammie: It was a big undertaking. We wanted something new and fresh that didn’t retell past Purdue histories and we wanted something that would complement, rather than compete with, John Norberg’s forthcoming book. With 150 years of history come 150 years of documents, photos, and artifacts. There are thousands of boxes of these records in the archives, but we had to start somewhere. Once we decided to focus on student life and organizing the book by decade, it helped us to hone in on what collections we had on those topics. We also made a serious effort to seek out—to the best of our abilities—diverse stories and perspectives, focusing not exclusively on famous alumni, but rather trying to tell the story of the average student experience by decade. We wanted to show that all Purdue students played a role in shaping the university, and we wanted to represent as many voices and perspectives as possible.
Q: What was your favorite decade to research?
David: I would say the 1900s, since that was the decade the many of the long standing and most colorful traditions were established or codified.
Adriana: I really enjoyed diving into the 1910s. So much was happening at that time as enrollment grew, old traditions faded, and new traditions developed. By the end of the decade, World War I really helped define what Purdue and the community could offer to the world.
Neal Harmeyer: My favorite decade to research was the 2010s. Studying archival content from the very recent past helped me to connect current issues and topics to those from past decades.
Sammie: I love the 1930s, it’s this fascinating time in American history between the two world wars when art and design and culture are becoming more streamlined and modern, Prohibition was ending, Art Deco was popular, and women were beginning to have more freedom after earning the right to vote in 1920. It also happens to be the decade when two women heroes of mine joined Purdue: Lillian Gilbreth and Amelia Earhart. It was the decade when Purdue opened the first university-owned airport. I just feel like there was a lot of growth and excitement, at Purdue, and in the U.S. during the 1930s. There was this can-do spirit seen in photos and documents that seemed celebratory despite the effects of the Great Depression. It was a fascinating time of highs and lows.
Q: Was there a single photo that you enjoyed the most that sticks out to you?
David: One of the most difficult parts of a book like this is choosing the best photo to tell a particular story. Sometimes there could be three or four similar images you like, but only one can be used. I like the photo on page 24 of the students being students, the two women on page 28, and the three women on page 34 showing early campus life of women. I also like the victors and the defeated on page 41, particularly the look of concern by the student with 08 sign hung around his neck.
Adriana Harmeyer: There are so many great photos in this book! One that comes immediately to mind, probably because I had never seen it until this project, is of Olympian Clifford C. Furnas running through ankle-deep water at a state track meeting as crowds cheer him on. This photo originally appeared in the 1922 Debris Yearbook, a great source of historical images.
Neal Harmeyer: I enjoy many of the images within the book. One that stands out is an image of the entrance to campus at State and Marsteller Streets in the 1940s. The intersection looks very different today.
Q: What were some of your favorite photos that didn’t end up making it into the book?
David: The one that did not make it in the book, because it is so commonly used, is Fred Hovde walking with a group of young men, some in World War II military clothing. The confident stride and the smiles reflect the new beginnings, growth, and promise of Hovde’s vision of a comprehensive research university and the GI Bill.
Adriana Harmeyer: There is a nice photo album from the 1930s, called “Purdue Panels,” that is filled with campus scenes. My favorite part of it, though, is the cover, which has sketches of the Power Plant and Heavilon Hall. It is a simple but eye-catching illustration of what the most prominent features of campus were at that time.
Q: Were there any Purdue legends or stories that you found to be untrue?
David: Gobs and gobs…In particular, all those that start with, “In John Purdue’s will…” He did not have a will and all those stories about no foreign language instruction, red brick, no building taller than University Hall, etc., are completely bogus.
Q: Neal, what is it like being involved in a project as a Purdue alum?
Neal Harmeyer: Working on this book as an alumnus was an interesting experience. I have spent many years in and around Purdue University, first as a student and later as a professional archivist, and through those experiences many historical details were already known to me. Yet, there are always new things to learn, and I was learned numerous facts during the research process. I found it fascinating each time a new fact was uncovered or myth debunked. Therefore, I am certain that anyone connected to Purdue will learn something from Purdue at 150.
Q: How similar is the work that you did for this book to the work that you do at the archives?
David: From the beginning, one of my roles was to recover lost bits of Purdue’s history and put dates, names, and context onto numerous photographs in the collection. Much of what is in the book cannot be found in other published Purdue histories.
Adriana Harmeyer: This book felt like a natural extension of our work in the Archives. We often assist researchers in identifying archival materials to help with their projects, and by working with these collections every day most of us have a good understanding of the broad strokes of Purdue history. This book gave us a chance to dive a little more deeply into the collections and piece together more of those historical details. I also manage the Archives social media accounts, so I am very familiar with identifying interesting images and writing descriptive text to accompany them.
Neal: As an archivist I am constantly helping researchers conduct their own research, creating metadata for collections and images alike, composing my findings, and enabling access to Archives and Special Collections content. Working on Purdue at 150 was similar to my daily activities, albeit with a longer research period.
Q: What do the archives provide to Purdue?
David: The Archives and Special Collection since its creation in 1913 strove to collect, arrange, describe, preserve, and make available the records of the University, staff, and alumni. It is not a mere collection because the highly trained professional and knowledgeable staff in the Archives bring the history of this institution to life and preserve it for the future.
Adriana: The Archives are the access point for these stories, housing the original documents, photographs, and objects that are part of the university’s history. However, we are not just a physical location, but a highly skilled team that can work with people through every step of the research process, from identifying primary sources for their research through to donating their own collections to the archives for future generations of researchers to study and enjoy.
Neal: I believe Archives and Special Collections provides unique opportunities for persons of all ages and educational backgrounds to self-discover and create new ideas. The collections with Archives and Special Collections document the histories of individuals, the university, and the community. A visitor may select, learn, and write about topics of their choosing, all while studying the original one-of-a-kind items of their creators. In turn, those studies generate new primary documents to be preserved for the next generations. Archives and Special Collections support research and learning. These are not only places of the past; they are places of the present and places of the future.
Sammie: The University Archives is the memory of Purdue. Here, we collect and manage the evidence of Purdue’s past activities, decisions, accomplishments, and the lives and contributions of its people. When a date or other fact needs to be checked, we provide the documentation for a reliable answer. But much more than that, the Archives is an accumulation of stories of the people who have shaped Purdue—the students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the University who have collectively made it what it is. It’s the Archives that preserves those memories for use by current and future generations of Boilermakers, and it’s the archivists who teach students how to do archival research and come to appreciate and connect with Purdue’s history. Finally, the Archives serves as the access point for scholars worldwide interested in writing books, articles, creating films, or exhibits on Purdue history; without the Archives, Purdue’s past would be an unreliable mix of rumors and hearsay, but most importantly, the legacies of so many ordinary people who helped build and sustain Purdue would be difficult to discover. I think the Archives make Purdue history real for people in a way that facts cannot; there is something exciting about learning through interacting with historical documents, photos, and memorabilia, old digital files and media. The past becomes, for a brief moment, the present when one interacts with these relics from history.
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