History Comes Alive in the Iowa Room

Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2009 4:12 pm | By Claire Reeder '11

Issue:  Summer 2009

Author:  Claire Reeder '11

The Iowa Room is home to the College Archives, supervised by College Archivist Catherine Rod (right) and Library Assistant Cheryl Neubert. Stepping into the Iowa Room is like stepping back in time: the warm wood tables and high-backed chairs, old-fashioned green desk lamps, and old maps of Iowa lining the walls recall a bygone era. It is a perfect atmosphere for the quest into the past that takes place in this little room on the lower level of Burling Library.

The Iowa Room houses the Department of Special Collections and Archives which, as the literature aptly describes, "seeks to collect, preserve, and make available materials that document the history of Grinnell College, its cultural and natural surroundings in Iowa, and the prairie setting of which this a part." Behind a steel door, a climate-controlled vault contains a rich, vast, continually growing collection of manuscripts, rare books, postcards, maps, photos, and non-current records. Publications and biographical information on faculty and alumni, as well as various forms of ephemera, are also cataloged. Together, these documents tell the story of Grinnell -- the College, the town, and the people.

As broad as the collection is, so are the purposes it serves. Mainly, it is a resource for historical research. From local historians to people compiling family trees to students writing research papers, the Iowa Room offers the opportunity for hands-on, primary source investigation. As College Archivist Catherine Rod explains, "Students are always asking, 'Can I touch this?' The answer is yes -- we're a teaching collection, we want everyone to be able to use what we have."

Assistant Professor of History Elizabeth Prevost led students in her tutorial The Making of Human Rights to the Iowa Room to conduct research for their final projects. Looking at Grinnell's engagement with human rights, students connect a violation or cause in history to the College, either to an individual or the institution as a whole. Prevost's goal is for students to improve their research skills and information literacy through experience with primary materials. "I want them to have to dig around a little, and use sources that are not accessible at the click of a mouse," she says.

For example, Brooke Yoder '12 investigated the second-wave feminist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, relating it to the issues swirling around the conditions of women's dorms on campus at that time. She looked at old Scarlet & Black articles and student academic manuscripts to put together a picture of Grinnell during this period of protest and political unrest.

One thing Yoder and her classmates found out the hard way, however, is that the there are limitations to the collection and to the historical record on the whole. This realization is one thing Prevost wants her students to come away with. "There are gaps and silences in the record, not only voices," Prevost says. "I want my students to experience the joys of discovery, but also the frustrations of not finding whatever you want, because those discoveries are important, too."

Local residents venture down to the Iowa Room as well, often wondering about the history of their homes. Cheryl Neubert particularly enjoys working with these inquiries. "All the research on local architectural history -- it's like looking at a microcosm of Grinnell, learning about each house and the people who lived there. It raises the question of why people choose to live where they live," she says. In this way, the collection connects to the local community, narrating the history and enriching the sense of place that makes Grinnell special.

More than just a research source, the Iowa Room collections play an active role in the operation of the College. Alumni relations and other campus offices often request information on alumni or official documents from previous presidential administrations, as the collection houses important non-current records. These offices also contribute to the collection's development, donating materials when they clean or close.

Additionally, private donations extend the constantly evolving and growing holdings of the Iowa Room. The dynamic collection relies on contributions from offices, alumni, families, and local residents for shape and depth. For instance, after the visit of Tom Cech '70 last year for the Robert N. Noyce '49 Science Center Dedication, his family contacted the Iowa Room to donate a packet of materials they received when Cech received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1989. After longtime Grinnell coach Edd Bowers '43 passed away this year, his family gave the Iowa Room all the photographs and programs he had amassed over the years. This contribution really fleshed out the history of Grinnell College football, Neubert says. She cites the importance of the community in developing and enriching the collection. "We're only as good as the campus community makes us," she says -- a fact to which Prevost's tutorial students and other researchers can certainly attest.

Andrew Walsh '09, who plans graduate study in library science, worked in the Iowa Room this past summer and was excited to learn more about the story behind the collection. He dealt with patron requests, research projects, and helped categorize and assess the value of donations. "I learned a lot about how libraries and special collections in particular work," he says. "Before this summer, I didn't really know about all the things that we have. One thing I liked a lot is the rare books, like the copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with [original woodcuts and illustrations] by Salvador Dali." The rare books collection also includes first editions of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, Hobbes' Leviathan, and Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, among others. In addition, they hold one of the largest assortments of manuscripts and files on James Norman Hall 1910, a co-author of the 1932 classic Mutiny on the Bounty. Scholars engaged in literary and historical research frequently request these materials.

Discovering the history residing in the basement of Burling is quite awe-inspiring. As Yoder puts it, "It is just the coolest place! As a self-proclaimed nostalgia junkie, I want to go and just look around sometime at everything they have." The vault is indeed the nostalgia lover's dream. For example, when imagining what college life was like at Grinnell through the years, donated personal scrapbooks provide a less "sanitized" version than do the Cyclone yearbooks. "They're kind of like the Facebook of the past," Rod quips.

The wonderment expressed by Walsh and Yoder is commonly shared among people who discover the Iowa Room for the first time; this exhilaration and curiosity persists even for the librarians who work in it on a daily basis. Neubert explains the magic of unraveling the threads that tie together Grinnell and the rest of the world: "It's all about putting together and discovering these connections. I suppose chemists feel like this sometimes. I suppose that's what history is all about."

And in the Iowa Room, history truly comes alive.

Originally published as an online web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2009