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Oberlin History Goes Digital
by Betty Gabrielli | Photos courtesy of the Oberlin Archives Virtual Collection
The 8,000 linear feet of records under the jurisdiction of Archivist Roland M. Baumann in Mudd Center is Oberlin College’s institutional memory.

For historians seeking primary sources deeply intertwined with the history of our country, the Archives’ rich accumulation of documents, manuscripts, photos, and special collections is a national treasure. And for students undertaking in-depth research, the existence of such significant resources so close at hand is the mother lode.

The Men's Gymnasium was located where Warner now stands. It was built in 1873 for $1,000, which was raised by students. Moved to a new location in 1900, the 75 by 25 foot, single-story frame building was destroyed by fire in 1909.

Each year, participants in first-year seminars, honors programs, and advanced courses account for nearly half of the 1,700 on-site visits to the Archives Reading Room on the fourth floor of Mudd Center.

Add to that number the visits made by faculty, staff, and visiting scholars, and the many requests made by e-mail, telephone, and the U.S. postal service, and the total number of reference transactions handled by the Archives staff each year comes to more than 4,000.

Enjoined by the Board of Trustees in 1966 to preserve the institution's “memory” and support its teaching mission, the Archives currently contains some 14 million items. Under Baumann’s direction, they are systematically collected, preserved, maintained, promoted, and made available to the world, as well as to members of the College community.

A quick read through the subject file on Archives’ web site is staggering. A wealth of material ranging from abolitionism to Frank Lloyd Wright opens new vistas on slavery, black education, coeducation, missions, sexual orientation, temperance, cultural diversity, ecology, and the environment.

So renowned is the Archives that Oberlin is the only liberal arts college to have received the Society of American Archivists’ Distinguished Service Award “for outstanding service to its public and exemplary contributions to the archival profession.”

Over the last decade, however, the Internet has changed the information universe, and the “slow fires of deterioration” are degrading paper and electronic formats, Baumann says.

To keep pace with new demands and priorities, he and the Archives Advisory Committee are developing a two-tier plan to preserve the Archives permanently by means of a special fund inaugurated in July 2005.

Known as the Richard McMaster and Priscilla Stevenson Hunt Endowed Fund for Preservation and Digital Access of the Oberlin College Archives, the fund “will ensure the continued preservation and availability of this historical and cultural property through a variety of means, including digital,” Baumann explains.

This coming summer will see the mounting of 4,000 of the College’s most significant photographs and the addition of interactive media (i.e., vocal tracks, etc.) to existing digital media projects.

Staff members have already begun migrating significant holdings that have direct application to Oberlin’s curriculum. Among them is a collection of 580 images related to missionary work in South Africa that Linda Grimm, associate professor and acting chair of the anthropology department, uses for her museum anthropology course. An online tutorial incorporating information on monuments and media supports cultural studies courses taught by Erik Inglis, assistant professor and co-chair of the art department, and Jeffrey Pence, professor of English and director of the cinema studies program.

Smaller groups of materials also have made their way into the College’s Virtual Collection. They include minority student records, which contain statistics regarding Oberlin students of color, including the first to receive college degrees anywhere.

Vivid in their digital form are 24 portraits of the more eminent men and women connected with Oberlin’s history, with biographical and provenance notes.

Also digitized are 235 museum objects connected to Oberlin, such as a 1905 Beanie cap (a style worn by first-year students until the 1960s) and 322 black-and-white photographs of male and female graduates who saw military service in World War I.

Oberlin archival and manuscript materials in digital format are in demand by programs elsewhere, among them the 1919 King-Crane Commission at Columbia University, the Women and Social Movement Sources at Binghamton University in New York, and the American Context of China’s Christian Colleges project at Yale University.

The Archives’ seeks to raise $500,000 over three years, and donors have been so enthusiastic that during the first six months of the endowment campaign, the fund attracted more than 230 gifts or pledges totaling nearly $350,000.

“Although no way exists for us to digitize all 10 to 12 million pages of documentation,” Baumann says, “the fund’s income will enable us to take appropriate steps to preserve Oberlin’s rich cultural and historical assets for posterity and for students yet to come.”

To see the virtual collection, go to www.oberlin.edu/archive/


Tappan Hall, a 90 room men's dorm, was demolished in 1885. Its rooms were each 8 by16 feet, with a door at one end and a window at the other.

Rice Memorial Hall, formerly a Conservatory lecture and practice space, had its top floor removed during the construction of King Memorial Hall.

Ladies Hall served as a women's dorm from 1865 until it was destroyed by fire in 1886. It was located where Talcott now stands.

Finney House was built in 1835 as a home for Professor Finney, who would become president of the College in 1851. It was torn down in 1905 for the construction of Finney Memorial Chapel.

Churchill Cottage, named for Charles Henry Churchill, an Oberlin professor for 48 years, was demolished in 1948 to make room for Harkness.

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