Diving into the University Archives
February 8, 2023
While students at UW-River Falls traverse the bookshelves and study spaces in the Chalmer Davee Library, below them rest decades of documents, floppy disks, and genealogical records. The UW-River Falls University Archives and Area Research Center offers students and researchers a variety of means to explore the history of the university and surrounding counties.
“We cover a four-county area of Pierce, St. Croix, Burnett, and Polk counties,” University Archivist and Records Manager Morgan Paavola said in an interview. Located in the basement of The Chalmer Davee Library, university records make up roughly 500 cubic feet of the space, according to Paavola.
The records are stored behind a locked door, on shelves that bear the weight of decades worth of information. The shelves are built for compact storage, and equipped with wheels like those of submarines which, when turned, dive deeper into history.
“For the university specifically, the oldest document we have is from 1870,” Paavola stated. The record vault climate is carefully controlled with an HVAC system that monitors the temperature and humidity. “We also have a special fire suppression system...it is a clean agent which protects the documents,” she said.
These measures ensure that the records are kept safe from external environmental factors. They also keep a steady atmosphere in the room, which feels suspended in time. Archive staff have the only means to access the locked room; however, the archives are open to the public. “We have tighter security because what we do have are probably the only copies in existence,” Paavola stated.
Students can also index possible documents of interest on the university’s library site, which the archive staff can then pull for them out of the records room. “It takes a couple of tries to find what you’re looking for, but definitely reach out to us [archive staff], we love working with students to help find what they’re looking for,” Paavola said.
The variety of records stored in the archives is large, and they range from public tax records to photographs, pins, banners, maps, and more. Acquisition of these items comes from an assortment of sources; one such way for Paavola is to coordinate with departments on campus.
“I reach out to departments and if they have any documents or files that they need to go through; I will come and help with those…. Other departments also reach out to me,” Paavola said.
Other less-official means are utilized to collect documents as well. Recently, another member of the archive staff was working on school records and went out to a local farmstead, where the owner had records from a rural school in Pierce County.
Documents are not the only pieces of records that are stored in the archives. There is a banner from the university’s Agriculture Department from 1912, homecoming pins from the 1960s, and even a whole row of shelves that are dedicated to sports media, displaying the evolution of technology as the content shifts from film to floppy disks, to VHS, and then CDs.
Restoring and viewing these forms of outdated media can be tricky, according to Paavola, but she enjoys the learning that comes with the challenges. “I am constantly learning… about different technologies…. Most of the records now are digital, and I work to take things off those old materials, like floppy disks, to be accessible for everybody,” she said. The archives recently received a large scanner to assist in processing documents last spring, stated Paavola.
While students continue their studies, and time travels beneath each footstep, the University Archives will be preserved and presented for those who choose to take a step back in history.
“People have come in and said, ‘kids these days are not interested in history,’ and I say that just isn’t true,” Paavola said. “Seeing their [students’] faces and that they can’t believe what they just found, and what is here and what has been saved, is always really rewarding.”