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Stephens archives help the future

The materials testify to the college's rich history.
Friday, May 13, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:18 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 5, 2008

Stepping into the Stephens College Archives is a little like stepping into someone’s basement. There are concrete floors, metal shelves swathed in protective plastic and stacked boxes.

Here, the windows are covered by dark shades, and fluorescent lights bouncing off white walls make the room seem stark.

The air is a little cooler; on a recent day it is 70.7 degrees, according to the small black digital thermometer resting on one of the shelves. The room hums with the noise of several small machines working to maintain the careful balance of humidity and temperature required to preserve the documents housed here.

Though the materials stored here lend an air of history, this is not the first location of the archives. First housed in the library, the archives moved once to Hillcrest Hall, then again to its current location in Tower Hall. This, however, is the perfect place for the archives, said archivist Bobbie Burk. The new room is a working space, which allows the staff to maintain the careful environment for the document themselves, and it also provides plenty of room to work on the continual cataloguing process for newly received materials.

These archives testify to the history of Stephens College. This is an institutional archive, cataloguing the history of the college, its students and its faculty. The shelves, filled with boxes of photos, documents and publications from the college, document the progression of Stephens College from its early days, first as the Columbia Female Academy, then as the Columbia Baptist Female Academy. On the wall near the entrance is the original bank note for $20,000 from James L. Stephens, the benefactor whose name the college bears.

There are many different materials housed in the archives. Some shelves are filled with the original thesis papers from students in the college’s early days who were applying to graduate with honors; others hold bound copies of each teacher’s course outline for a given year.

Prominent in the archives are the collection of the papers of James Madison Wood, the president of the college who is credited with bringing the college to national recognition, and the Maude Adams collection, which documents the famous actress’ time as the head of the drama department at Stephens.

Also interesting to note is the collection of photographs and documents detailing the aviation program for the college, which was the first aviation program for women when it was established in 1944. The black-and-white photographs show carefully coifed women flying and caring for the fleet of planes the college maintained at one time.

The archives are used for more than storing the college’s historical documents. Several requests come in each week from people eager to find some bit of the college’s past, Burk said. One man called to see whether his plane, which had reportedly been part of the Stephens College fleet, might be recorded somewhere in the archives. Burk was able to find a photograph of his plane and send him information about the program the plane had been part of.

Although the archives are about the college’s past, there are signs everywhere of its move toward the future. The materials are in the process of becoming part of a database so they can be accessed more quickly, and there is a scanner still in its box waiting for the summer so that archival slides and negatives can finally be accessed. These are just a few of the innovations in store for the archives so that history can keep up with the times.


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