Matthew Hein:Remembering the PSU archives

It isn’t that I don’t have plenty of things to do. I do. This may not seem like the right time to start a new project, but you haven’t yet heard my new great idea. In the spirit of complete openness and transparency, I can’t claim complete credit for it; apparently other people have engaged in similar activities before. My inspiration, I should also admit, came from a couple of folks right here at Portland State.

Are you ready for this? Okay, let me explain a little bit about the inspiration part, the part where I decided to start my new project after talking to a couple of folks here on campus. Cathy Croghan-Alzner and Gordon Dodds each spend about 10 hours a week on the fifth floor of the Millar Library. Together, they constitute the professional staff of the PSU archives.

The archive mission, as stated on its flier, is “to collect, organize, describe, preserve, and make available the records of the University.” Anyone wandering around the library lobby while waiting for a computer to open up this month (November) probably noticed the vintage PSU bowling league shirt displayed there between shelves.

As Croghan-Alzner explained earlier this week, the archives currently consist of the files in Room 596 (an office a little smaller than one of those study alcoves in Cramer Hall), and “several hundred boxes in a warehouse.” Those boxes contain plenty of information that any reasonably well-adjusted human would find absolutely boring, if not sleep-inducing.

Among the stacks of minutes for meetings addressing long-forgotten and little-missed topics of disinterest, however, an occasional gem catches the eyes of these two historians.

Alzner pored over legal minutiae “to make sure that we held the personnel files restricted for the legal amount of time.” The cut-off happens to be 25 years, in case you were wondering.

“I’ve been going through everything from personnel to construction to the purchasing of furniture,” Alzner laughed, nodding to the files piled on her desk. Leafing through a stack that looked no more promising than Croghan-Alzner’s, Dodds pointed out something that caught his attention. “On the other hand,” he said, “here’s a 1971 memo dealing with who controls student activity fees.” Specifically, the issue was whether university administration held veto power over student government decisions, “so there is sometimes something more interesting than it would appear.”

Among the more interesting items in the archivists’ care is the small clothbound journal kept by former PSU President Stephen Epler during his tenure in charge of the rapidly growing school. Donated by Epler’s son and daughter, the journal includes the administrator’s personal observations on the college’s transformations during the early ’50s.

I felt a little funny looking at Epler’s diary. Maybe the fact that, unlike Croghan-Alzner and Dodds, I’m not a professional historian accounts for the mixed feelings I experienced while viewing the diary. It could be that I felt intimidated by the classy binding and built-in latch, or the realization that my handwriting will never look as elegant (and legible) as a 1950s college president’s.

As I rode the elevator downstairs after our meeting, I recalled how Croghan-Alzner had summed up her work’s importance. “Archives are keepers of the records that provide the institutional memory,” she said. Institutional memory allows a community access to past events beyond the scope of any single individual. The archive brochure declares the organization’s intent to field questions from “the academic community and the community at large.” In the last couple of weeks, the archivists received inquiries from faculty members inquiring about the school’s history of giving honorary degrees to an architecture student interested in the Park Blocks’ look in earlier times.

“I’m currently writing to every student organization (about 140, all told), asking if they want to turn over their archives to us,” said Dodds. This sort of work is nothing new to the retired history professor who authored PSU’s official biography, The College that Would Not Die.

And this is where my brilliant new project comes in. I’m going to find one of those cool little cloth journals. I’ll transcribe the theological debates in the park. I’ll sketch unflattering portraits of Campus Safety officers riding their bikes past chickadees and rock doves. I’ll stick those KPSU bumper stickers inside of it.

Maybe someday my campus diary will find its way to the top of one of those hundreds of boxes in a warehouse in deep industrial northwest Portland.

Cathy Croghan-Alzner and Gordon Dodds are interested in adding to their already mountainous stores. They would like to take a look at any old photos, posters or written material pertaining to the university. They can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].