Feel the Heartbeat of a Place

May 06, 2021

By Sammie Stagg ’21

It can be difficult to get to know a town when you can’t visit in person, or only have a few days to spend there. At times like these, learning the local history is a great way to feel the heartbeat of a place.

Claire Davis ’22
Claire Davis ’22

The Grinnell Stories Instagram page connects students — and anyone else with an interest in the city — to people, places, and moments of Grinnell history. “We generally want to help people become more familiar with the city, especially college students, where they will be living for four years,” says Claire Davis ’22, who has been working with Drake Community Library since her first year. “It’s about helping to forge that community connection.”

Drake Library has an extensive local history archive, and the librarians and Grinnell College student workers have worked for years to digitize it. “With the help of students, we’ve been able to expand it so much,” says Monique McLay Shore ’90, the systems administrator at Drake. While the digitizing project started in response to running out of room in the physical archives, scanning photos and documents to make them available online has made it possible to explore Grinnell history from anywhere in the world. 

Allison Cottrell ’21 spent her summer 2020 internship (a position adapted to the remote format during the coronavirus pandemic) diving into Grinnell’s history. She archived oral histories, designed the website layout, and organized the digital archives to make them easily searchable. This way, people could visit the site to research family history, learn the history of a recently purchased home or business, or discover the myriad ways the community has used its churches and art centers. 

Partnership Continues Due to Service Learning Work-Study Program

As summer 2020 drew to a close, neither Cottrell nor Shore wanted to end their partnership. Shore told Cottrell she could continue to work at the library during the fall semester through Grinnell College’s service learning work-study program, a program offered by the Center for Careers, Life, and Service that provides students with funding for volunteer positions and unpaid internships. 

“We brainstormed, what are some projects we could do remotely?” Shore says. They decided the community needed an easy way to find the most memorable moments in Grinnell history, so Cottrell got to work reading and indexing Grinnell Stories, a blog by professor emeritus and local historian Dan Kaiser

As Cottrell read more and more of Kaiser’s stories — which include anecdotes about a baby abandoned at Goodnow Hall and a cyclone that ripped through town in 1882 — she realized they might be intriguing to a younger crowd. “I thought it would be interesting to explore telling those stories to a different kind of audience, to a student-centered audience, or an audience of people who are newer to Grinnell,” says Cottrell. She felt Drake Library could reach these people by making an Instagram page. “I had been bugging my housemates with [the stories], and thought, maybe I could bug other people with them, too,” she says.

Cottrell pitched her Instagram idea to Shore and Davis, and they loved it. The three of them got to work on creating posts for the account. Davis explains, “It has always been a priority of the archives to open up access and reach out to more people.”

Since its inception in early February, @grinnellstories has added three posts per week, one each from Cottrell, Davis, and Shore. This project has allowed them to explore the elements of history they find the most compelling. “It’s been cool to see what sorts of stories Monique and Claire are more drawn to telling,” says Cottrell. “I’m really interested in stories that show how much the actual physical location of Grinnell has changed. The history of the trees that have been planted, or the history of wolves in Grinnell — there were a lot more at one point.” She also enjoys the quirkier side of Grinnell history. “I was recently reading about the history of early cars in Grinnell and people getting speeding tickets for going 10 miles an hour, and horse and car accidents.” 

Davis says, “I’m a music and history major so I’ve tended to focus on musicians and artists. Women in music is a topic I’m very interested in.” One of these posts was on Isabella Beaton, a pianist from Grinnell whose compositions made it to the Cleveland Symphony and the New Philharmonic Orchestra. 

Local History That’s Inclusive and Respectful

Sharing history through social media is still a relatively new concept, and Cottrell, Davis, and Shore are learning how to wield this tool as effectively as possible. Instagram’s image-based platform makes it challenging to tell stories when they don’t come with compelling images, but when researching prominent Black figures for Black History Month, they struggled to find photos. “It’s especially hard to tell more underrepresented stories that are underrepresented in the images we have,” says Cottrell. “Most of the images we have related to African-American history at Grinnell were donated by one [single] person… we’re still trying to tell different peoples’ stories, even without the images.”

According to Davis, telling someone else’s story is a responsibility that requires great care. “Treating the topics carefully, the way you frame it, how you present it… you are shaping someone’s image of a person, and of Grinnell,” she says. “The archives have a dominating narrative, and it’s really interesting when you come across stories of people who did not dominate the narrative.”

“It’s so refreshing to get the student perspective,” says Shore. “Students bring a passionate perspective for making sure we’re being more inclusive than the person who’s been doing this for thirty years who has maybe fallen into the familiar tread of stories that should be told.” 

Developing the Instagram page has not only helped their peers better understand Grinnell, it has also changed Cottrell and Davis’ relationship to the city as well. “Being able to talk with Monique on a regular basis… is a grounding force in the town in a way that I haven’t had before this,” says Cottrell. “And the stories are re-forming my conception of Grinnell.” 

“This is making me more aware that the city has a history,” Davis says. “I love the small businesses in historic downtown, the atmosphere.”

Preparation for Careers That Matter — in Any Discipline

Although Davis wants to pursue music performance and arts administration, she sees her work with Drake Library and the Instagram page as a way to build the essential skills she’d need in any profession. “I think history is applicable to anything, really. Even if I don’t do librarian work, I’m always going to need to write wherever I go. I know how to frame an argument, present a story. I’ll be able to write reports, compile evidence, that sort of thing... I’m not going to stop researching — I love it too much.”

For Cottrell, an English major, working at the library has revealed interests she didn’t know she had. “I really like creative writing, but also learning about history, which is something I kind of discovered through this internship. I hadn’t taken a ton of history classes here; I’m not a history major. But the ability to tell stories, especially through a blend of both images and text, and explore different voices and actually reach an audience… it was cool to me.”

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