In 1890, Union alumnus William E. Benjamin was in a Paris bookstore and discovered a drawing of Joseph Ramée’s campus plan. He noticed that “College de l’Union a Schenectady” was written on the sketch, bought it and later transferred it to the College, according to Ramée scholar Paul Turner ’62.
“He bought it and brought it back. It is now in the Union College archives,” said Turner of the drawing, which was printed in a rare book of Ramée’s park and garden designs. “It’s the only known example of one of Ramée’s drawings that was published in this book.”
Consider any exhibit, term paper, commemoration or book pertaining to Union history. Nearly every one, at some point, was aided by a visit to Special Collections, a treasure trove of history on the third floor of Schaffer Library. Special Collections preserves materials ranging from Ramée’s sketches to hand-colored engravings by John James Audubon to the College’s first book purchase.
Turner, a renowned architectural historian, relied on prints and documents stored in the archives for his comprehensive book, Joseph Ramée, International Architect of the Revolutionary Era. The book, published in 1996, is partially devoted to Ramée’s plan for Union’s campus, which was drafted largely in 1813 in consultation with President Eliphalet Nott and became a blueprint for American college campuses.
“It is important for an archivist to see the material used in ways that brings Union’s history to succeeding generations,” said Ellen Fladger, associate librarian and head of Special Collections.
Turner is just one in a line of historians, students and professors to find inspiration in the records kept in the archives. Take Jeremy Dibbell ’04, who as a student found in Special Collections a passion for Union history and a path to a career as a librarian and historian.
Or take Paul LeClerc, president of the New York Public Library, who as a Union professor researched the collection of John Bigelow. Bigelow was member of the Class of 1835 and a founder of the public library.
More recently, Jared Gourier ’10 discovered materials connected with Moses Viney, the emancipated slave who became a companion to President Eliphalet Nott.
What’s more, there are ongoing exhibits such as Union Notables, which draw heavily from materials in Special Collections.
This is no dusty assemblage of rarely seen, even obscure, works and artifacts kept in a dim space. For many, it is a doorway to history and source of inspiration for new works.
“It’s essential, given Union’s long history, to have this record,” said Andrea Foroughi, associate professor of history, who has used Special Collections resources in a number of her courses. Equally important, she adds, is that original source material reveals a great deal more than just facts.
“This is different than going into a database,” she said. “It gives a student a different sense of the reality to read the handwriting or something in pencil someone wrote on the pages.”
Yet, there have been times in the College’s history when the archival collection was a neglected collection of hardly seen items in out-of-the-way spaces. What passed for an archive at various points in Union history has included attics, closets, basements, offices, even common areas like the library stacks. Few were climate controlled. Many were not secure.
Today, Fladger and her colleagues, including Archival Specialist Marlaine DesChamps, carry out their work in a space that, by past standards, is welcoming, comfortable and even spacious. Since the 1998 renovation of Schaffer Library, Special Collections has moved from a cramped labyrinth of half-story rooms atop the library’s main building to a secure third-floor facility that includes storage, offices and research areas.
It is here that the archivists carry on the tasks aimed at keeping the College’s 214 years of history intact: collecting, restoring, preserving, researching, indexing … and teaching. Fladger and Tom McFadden offered a sophomore research seminar in the spring term titled, “Union College and Higher Education in the Nineteenth Century” for 13 students.
And Fladger is also at work preserving the seemingly common items of today that will be of importance years from now. That includes items such as campus fliers for popular events or digital photos of student excursions such as the recent trips to help rebuild New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And, it includes e-mail messages such as those shared among Union faculty that, in the 1800s, would have been written communication.
“What we are left with is a situation in which we have become less selective in what we save. At the same time, the things we are collecting are endangered,” Fladger said. “We are thinking about ways of collecting items like important e-mail messages for future generations.”
Even as Fladger eyes ways to bolster future archives, Special Collections remains a haven for researchers seeking material of topics not connected with Union: faculty looking for a quote by William Blake, a student writing a paper for a class on feminism, or a scholar doing research on an early graduate.
Special Collections houses items like Audubon’s Birds of America, a collection of colorful plates that Nott purchased directly from the artist. There is also the Bailey Collection of North American wit and humor, donated by Frank Bailey, Class of 1885 and longtime treasurer of the College. Some of the papers of Prof. Charles P. Steinmetz, the “Electrical Wizard of Schenectady” and other GE luminaries are in Special Collections.
A TASTE OF UNION HISTORY
Jeremy Dibbell got his first taste of Union history halfway through his first year at Union in 2000.
He’d heard that alumnus William Henry Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, had organized a model Congress in which students debated the issues of the day including the Fugitive Slave Act and the transcontinental railroad.
So Dibbell turned to Special Collections to transcribe some student notebooks. So began an odyssey that he continues today.
“I went hog wild after that,” he said.
In his sophomore year, he researched a series of letters between Nott and Seward. Then, he set about researching Nott’s speeches, most notably the powerful anti-dueling eulogy that Nott delivered following the death of Alexander Hamilton.
His Special Collections research formed the foundation for a regular series of articles known as “State of the Union,” that ran between 2002 and 2004 in Concordiensis, for which he served as editor in his senior year.
In a history research seminar, Dibbell, then a senior, picked a topic that would draw heavily on materials in Special Collections: Phi Beta Kappa and secrecy rules.
Dibbell stayed at Union the year after he graduated, doing various projects in Schaffer Library and Special Collections. One was a book of Nott’s speeches. Another was a seminar course he taught with Professor James Underwood, “Nott and His Political Progeny.”
“Nott had an influence on generations of Union College students and on the political, literary, scientific and judicial life of the country,” Dibbell said. “That was not missed by the students in the class. They really got into it and did a great job on Union history.”
After graduation, Dibbell earned master’s degrees in library science and history from Simmons College. For his thesis, he chose a topic he began to study at Union: the College’s first purchases of books in the 1790s.
“The Union College library was one of the first to be designed rather than haphazardly thrown together with big donations of out-of-date books,” he said. “Union started from scratch and had to decide what to buy.”
Luckily, the College’s founders were careful to keep letters, invoices and packing slips. “Union has the kinds of information about the formation of our library that few, if any, other early American college libraries have,” Dibbell said. “And Union’s are in a good environment, stored well, and mostly all there. That’s a big help.”
For Dibbell, Union’s history is pervasive. “I think Union has a way of making its history known to people, whether they want to get it or not,” he said. To wit, a recent question on the game show Jeopardy!: A: The last president to serve without a vice president. Q: Who was Chester Arthur?