Saving Duke's History

University Archives assists departments in preserving Duke's past

University Archivist Valeria Gillispie, right, assists Katharine Adkins, assistant curator of exhibitions at the Nasher Museum of Art, in preparing materials for the university's archives. Photo by Marsha A. Green.

When Katharine Adkins started work at the Nasher Museum of Art three years ago, she discovered three file boxes in her office.

Inside, she found art history: the Duke University Museum of Art magazine from 1995, letters about exhibits in 1993, and posters advertising the 1971 exhibit, "From Slave to Siren: The Victorian Woman and her Jewelry." 

"I knew these documents should be kept, so I contacted University Archives and asked `what should I do?' " said Adkins, assistant curator of exhibitions at the Nasher.

Since its creation in 1972, the University Archives has collected more  than 10,000 linear feet of items - enough to stretch from Duke Chapel to East Campus. 

Dating from 1838, the reports, budgets, newspaper clippings, newsletters, posters, videos, email and other materials in Duke's official repository are a resource for researching and telling Duke's story. Part of the job of University Archives is to help faculty and staff preserve the pieces of the present that will become the record of the past.

"Offices often have meeting minutes, correspondence or reports that are referenced for a year or so and then get buried in a file somewhere," University Archivist Valerie Gillispie said. "We encourage departments and administrative offices to archive inactive files of this sort. They are the materials future scholars will use to understand how the university evolved."   

In Nasher's case, Gillispie asked Adkins to send an inventory of the folders in the boxes to help University Archives prepare for the material. "If you aren't sure whether something should be archived, ask yourself if someone writing the history of art museums at Duke would find it useful," Gillispie said.

After reviewing the six-page inventory, Gillispie visited Adkins' office with acid-neutral, crush-proof cardboard boxes designed for archival purposes. Gillispie and Adkins transferred the files into the boxes for processing and safekeeping at the off-site Library Service Center. 

Most archived materials in University Archives can be viewed in the Rubenstein Library Reading Room on request. However, certain restrictions apply. 

Gillispie is working with dean's offices and departments such as Duke Athletics to set up annual or bi-annual schedules for archiving materials. Sometimes what is important isn't one particular record, she said, but the mass of material over time that allows researchers to see changes.

"Institutional memory is fleeting," Gillispie said. "Having good archives ensures that five, 50 or 100 years from now, someone can recreate the story of what was happening and how Duke responded." 

What Will Archives Accept?

  • Departmental publications 
  • Budget reports
  • Photographs and videos
  • Policy handbooks
  • Meeting minutes
  • Letters/emails by topic  

For more information, contact University Archives at (919) 660-5822.