SJR Column: UIS Archives, July 2016

The academic community at UIS includes a wide range of talented individuals – more than 1,000 faculty and staff members who contribute in important ways to providing students with an intellectually rich learning experience while also serving local communities and beyond.

Perhaps one of the most unique members of the UIS community is Tom Wood, the Archivist in the University’s Norris L. Brookens Library for nearly 30 years. You might say Tom is the “memory” of the University, for archivists are professionals who collect, assess, organize and preserve valuable records because they have continuing importance to the institution and to others.

When Tom Wood arrived at then SSU in 1986 after earning a Master’s degree from the prestigious Library and Information Science program in Urbana, his first goal was to organize the UIS collection. “We had a lot of records,” he says, “but little had been processed and made available for teaching and research functions.”

Expanding the collections of primary source materials and making them more easily accessible for use by faculty, students and the public has been another ongoing goal. Thanks to various external grants and technical advancements in the field, the collection has grown substantially, with more and more documents and records available and searchable online.

“Digitization has been a revolution over the past several years,” says Tom, “and it has made a lot of the aspects of archiving and archival research easier and more effective.”

Valuable records in the UIS Archives include not only the ever-growing archives of UIS and its predecessor institution Sangamon State University, but also a variety of special collections including rare and valuable books, periodicals, photographs and reference items of historical and regional interest.

The Archives is one of seven Illinois Regional Archives Depositories (IRAD), housing a collection of valuable county and local government records such as birth, marriage, death and court records from a 14-county region that date back to the 1800s. The Archives is also home to various documents from Abraham Lincoln’s law career, most of which are on original paper.

The UIS Oral History Collection, initiated in 1975 by now- retired UIS History professor Cullom Davis, is a priceless collection of taped and digitized oral history interviews collected from a wide variety of persons in and around Illinois. It is a unique record of life in the Midwest from the late 19th century to the present. The collection includes interviews with state legislators and other political leaders, but also interviews with coal miners who were part of labor unrest in Illinois in the 1920s and 1930s and Springfield residents who remembered witnessing the local race riots of 1908.

The Archives is also home to the Handy Colony Collection, which includes materials, personal correspondence and photos from a writing colony founded in 1950 by Illinois-born novelist James Jones (author of the 1951 best-selling classic, From Here to Eternity) and his mentor, Lowney Handy.

“I enjoy working with history and the questions people ask are very interesting,” says Tom. “The Archives are a great resource for UIS faculty and students and for local historians, but we’ve also had requests from all over the country and from as far away as Norway, Russia and Tasmania.”

The price is certainly appealing – the Archives (and Tom’s expert advice) are free for the asking!

Award-winning writer, Springfield native, and two-time UIS alum, Tara McClellan McAndrew has discovered many valuable resources in the UIS Archives and has made extensive use of the IRAD and Oral History Collections in her writing projects. “I’ve used records from lawsuits in the 1800s and records of the historic Clayville stage coach stop when I was commissioned to write a play about Clayville’s founders, the Broadwells.”

“I love the oral history collection,” she says. “There is no substitute for personal accounts of the past – they are what brings our history alive and are so important in trying to learn what happened at a particular time.”

The UIS Archives/Special Collections, a unique and valuable campus and community resource, is open Monday-Friday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Many databases are also available online via the Library website.

Chancellor Susan J. Koch