My first thought when I heard about the UW archives Special Collections was decidedly unprofessional. "Cool! When do I get to see that stuff?" I thought. Well, today was the day. I had a fascinating tour of the basement at Suzallo Library where the university keeps the really old proof of its history and impact on the region.
More than a million pictures. More than 50,000 separate pieces of film and video. Three different warehouses full of ceiling-high shelves packed with cartons which are packed with material. Class records. Research. Account ledgers from local timber companies. Student scrapbooks. The complete works and history of political heavyweights Warren Magnuson and Henry "Scoop" Jackson. The sheer quantity and variety boggle the mind. It's a really cool place to just poke around in.
UW Archivist John Bolcer is the man in charge and he cheerfully admnits he has no real idea about what exactly is here.
"I know where to look for things but I don't know where everything is. it's a treasure hunt every time we go to research," he said.
Bolcer showed up the oldest UW campus photo in the collection, a 150 year old picture of the only classroom building of the "Territorial University" when it was located in what is now downtown Seattle.
I was able to thumb open and peruse the first teacher's first listing of the first class on the first day of school. Asa Mercer carefully wrote the names of his students, heavy with Bagleys and Dennys, in a little leather-bound palm-sized book, 150 years ago today. He carefully recorded their grades, seemingly a numerical 1-through-5 rating system. I also opened the ledger containing the first minutes of the first meeting of the University's Board of Regents from 1962. When did magnificent penmanship go so completely out of style? Long ago, obviously, and what a shame.
The old photos (and remember, there are more than a million of them) are spectacular, a wide variety of snapshots of campus and civic life. I could still be there, just turning over pictures, opening boxes, sorting through old maps and paintings and documents. "Hey what's this? What are those big film machines over there? Who keeps track of this stuff?" A million questions, still rattling in my head.
It was a tremendous opportunity. And one which makes me wonder...what kind of cool stuff do they have in the basement of the Burke Museum?