Charlie Williams (HIST ’19) is a student assistant in Special Collections and Archives. Here she looks a variety of sources from the University Archives that were all created to capture a single event in Cal Poly’s history.
“What is it like to do research in the archives?”
I have encountered this question several times while working as a student assistant in the Kennedy Library Special Collections and Archives. My friends and family who are unfamiliar with this environment always want to know how I “fall down the rabbit hole”, so to speak, and investigate a topic or story seemingly without end. While the conclusions to some research questions are easily found on Digital Commons or the Kennedy Library Online Archive, others remain unclear. However, these cases are far from frustrating. In fact, many of these open-ended questions allow me to uncover new potential for resources in the archives and explore various themes spanning across decades.
Recently, I was researching a series of photographs that we recently digitized. With this last school year being defined by student activism, there was interest about the history of previous protests, marches, and demonstrations on campus. The images depict a large crowd in the University Union, which in 1971 was called the “College Union” (Cal Poly’s official name was “California Polytechnic State College” from 1947-1972). Because the image description also linked the gathering’s organization to Students for New Action Politics (SNAP), an activist group on campus, I assumed that this assignment would be a fairly straightforward. Just another campus protest, right?
A rally? Or a question and answer session with President Kennedy? The photograph slowly began to reveal itself; first by showing me this was not the demonstration I had previously thought. Confused, I continued my research. I was pointed to recently-digitized cassette tapes labeled “Plaza Rally #1” and“Plaza Rally #2” found in the University Archives Audio-Visual Collection. Listening closely, I heard an opening voice explaining the purpose of the rally. It was described as a chance for Kennedy to answer questions about four issues of student concern: an increase in foreign student tuition, the non-retention and denial of a professor’s tenure, the cases of teachers who were released, and the issue of an open-door or closed-door visiting policy in the residential halls.
Further into the tape it became clear to me that the “rally” was more like an airing of grievances, with cheers and boos heard in the background after people spoke. I learned several lessons during my investigation of the photograph, that I feel help explain researching in the archives to those previously mentioned friends.
First, nothing is as it seems. First impressions may be completely wrong, and that is absolutely okay. That is the whole point of research, to broaden your perspective and learn something new. Second, “falling down the rabbit hole” can reveal new and intriguing information. By doing so in this case, I found more topics to investigate such as the residential visitation policy or the retention policy for professors at Cal Poly. Third, by evaluating issues that affect us today, we can find intriguing stories that reveal patterns of past behavior (in this case student activism) and how we approach them similarly or differently over time. I encourage you to come visit and find your own story at the archives. How will your journey begin?
Header photo: 1971 crowd in the University Union listening to President Robert E. Kennedy’s conversation with student groups (http://digital.lib.calpoly.edu/rekl-5934)
Interesting fact: the Julian A. McPhee University Union AKA College Union was dedicated March 6, 1971. This rally was one of the first events that was held at the new union.