Hidden Treasures In Overlooked Repositories

by Lou Liberty | Oct 4, 2011

Question: What do the following have in common: 1) an American first edition of Winnie The Pooh accompanied by a Steiff Pooh Bear; 2) a unique collection of photographs by Laura Gilpin; 3) a personal recollection of the bombing of Pearl Harbor; 4) Congresswoman Ruth Hanna McCormick Simms' hand-tailored, sidesaddle riding habit; and 5) a sweatshirt autographed by Bill Cosby.

Answer: All of these items, plus numerous photographs, papers and documents, reside in the Sandia Preparatory School Archive in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I had the fortunate experience of creating the Sandia Preparatory School Archive in 2000 after writing Constant Possum: The History of Sandia Preparatory School. I had been a teacher at the school for almost 30 years at that time. Writing the school's history was a unique experience involving a number of first person interviews in addition to primary source photographs, documents and papers. Upon publication of the book, the school's then headmaster, Dick Heath, saw the need to develop an archive to preserve the research for the book and much more. He asked me to be the school's archivist.

In 2000 I had absolutely no experience with archival work. I had no idea where to start. Fortunately, the New Mexico State Archives and Libraries offered a number of free classes in records management and in creating and maintaining an archive. I took all of the classes and developed the Sandia Prep Archive over a ten-year period. The last few years of my tenure, before retirement in 2010, were dedicated to beginning the huge task of digitizing photos, papers and documents. Unfortunately, the archive does not have an active archivist today but it is supervised by the Sandia Prep School Development Department.

Supplying copies of photographs and documents in support of state and national historic site designation is one example of the service the Sandia Prep Archive rendered to the community at large during my time as archivist. These materials were related to the original John Gaw Meem buildings and campus constructed by Ruth Hanna McCormick Simms in 1936. Confiscated for the war effort at the beginning of WWII, the original school buildings are located on Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque.

A second major service to the community from the Sandia Prep Archive and the Simms family is a permanent loan of Laura Gilpin photographs to the Museum of New Mexico. Gilpin was hired by Ruth Hanna McCormick Simms to create her school's brochure. This historically significant, unusual group of photographs was honored with a special show at the museum in 2001.

Without a doubt, private school archives are an overlooked treasure trove of information waiting to be investigated. Understanding the private or Independent School system is the first step in the process.

Universal public education did not begin in the United States until 1852 when Massachusetts passed the first compulsory school attendance laws. New York followed in 1853. Up until that time, education was highly localized and supported by individuals, associations or religious groups. Private, or Independent Schools, did not disappear with the advent of public education. Independent Schools continued to thrive alongside the new public system. In the beginning these schools were open only to the wealthy or to special interests. Today these schools are mostly egalitarian.

Visit The National Association Of Independent Schools

The National Association of Independent Schools, or NAIS, represents 1400 independent schools scattered throughout the United States. It is a 501(c) 3 organization. Some of the member schools are denominational but most are non-denominational. Many of these schools date from very early in our nation's history. The NAIS also affiliates with independent schools abroad.

The NAIS website is the first place to visit to gain an overview of the Independent School system and to find the names of member schools. Be prepared for diversity. The central ideals related to these schools are the concepts of individuality and autonomy. A large percentage of these Independent Schools maintain archives. Some archives are professionally managed; loving caregivers service others. Most archives are associated with the school library.

Exploring Independent School archives will present the researcher with a variety of organizational frameworks, requirements, and methods. As with all archives, materials are not circulated in Independent School archives. It is important to have specifics in mind when you make a request for materials. Almost always, the archivist, or librarian in charge of archived materials, will be welcoming and helpful if you are prepared.

A brief survey of a few Independent School archives will be helpful in gaining insight into the potential of Independent School archive research. I have chosen the following schools at random, seeking to present a range of archives representative of Independent School collections.

One of the most professional archives belongs to Phillips Exeter Academy. This school was founded in 1781. It is located in Exeter, New Hampshire. As you can see from the website, the Phillips Exeter Archives is professionally organized and managed. With its 230-year history, Phillips Exeter Academy is a significant repository and holds great potential for the researcher.

Another school maintaining a professional level archive is Sidwell Friends School in Washington DC. Sidwell Friends School was founded in 1883 and has maintained records, photographs, documents and papers connected to its history for 128 years. As a Quaker school, important items pertaining to the Society of Friends reside in its archive.

The McCallie School is located on the western slope of Missionary Ridge, the Civil War battlefield near Chattanooga, Tennessee. Founded in 1905, the school's archive of materials represents over a century of historical information. Scanning this website, you will notice there is no "official" archive but all indications point to an active archiving process.

The Madeira School, in McLean, Virginia, is an example of a girls' day and boarding school. Madeira chose to remain a single sex school as many of the traditional boys and girls' schools opted for co-education in the early 1970's. Its archive web page provides clear and immediate insight into its policies and collections by clearly listing them. This is very helpful to the researcher because it saves time.

The Interlochen Center For The Arts is an Independent School archive serving a specialized group. Interlochen is a renowned arts school for young people located in Interlochen, Michigan. Founded in the 1920's to promote music education, Interlochen's program now encompasses a full spectrum of the arts.

The Isidore Newman School in New Orleans was established in 1903. Its archive was created in 1994. Newman is an example of an archive under development. Most likely its archivist is faced with what I experienced when I began the Sandia Prep Archive, a mountain of material collected and stored over the years and no organization. This kind of developing archive should not be neglected, however. It contains much important information, perhaps just not as easily available as that in long established archive.

From this brief survey of only six Independent School archives, you can easily see the wide range of possibility and information waiting to be plumbed by a thoughtful researcher. Exploring Independent School archives broadens and deepens research. Although each collection relates to its institution, all of these schools and their students are part of the larger history of the United States. Independent School collections are a valuable lens through which to view and understand our history.

Beginning with the National Association of Independent Schools website, you can gain an overview and orient yourself for this exciting research. Carefully reading the websites of member schools, you can sharpen your search parameters in preparation for contact. Without doubt, you will retrieve unexpected treasures and surprising information from Independent School archives; maybe even discover a charming stuffed bear and the book telling his story.


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