In the future, will you define our past?
An archivist builds a modern collection on his savvy hunches about those who will make history
If the shoe fits &#8230; store it.Skip to next paragraph
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If it fits Fred Astaire, put it on display.
Manuscript collections don't usually have to make room on their shelves for shoes, gas masks, and music stands. But then, not every collection is pulled together by Howard Gotlieb. If an object reveals something about a life, the unconventional archivist is happy to keep it alongside the letters, journals, and papers that, taken as a whole, give a sweeping overview of the 20th century.
Dr. Gotlieb came to Boston University nearly four decades ago with one goal in mind: to build a contemporary archive.
He had worked for years with the documents of historical figures like George Washington. But as the civil rights movement swung onto the national scene and Vietnam began to enter household vocabulary, Gotlieb set out to collect from living people who, he suspected, would prove to have touched the 20th century in a significant way.
Today, the public exhibits at BU's Mugar Memorial Library represent just a paper-thin fraction of the roughly 2,000 collections in its Twentieth Century Archives. New materials arrive almost daily. The shelves from its two floors of storage would stretch about seven miles.
With names like Langston Hughes, Elie Wiesel, and Ella Fitzgerald on the tags, Gotlieb's instinctive calls have in many cases turned out to be savvy ones. CBS News anchor Dan Rather, for instance, has been shipping boxes off to BU since 1964. In a current exhibit, people can view his Vietnam War field notes and the gas mask he used when covering the Gulf War.
Some of the acid-free boxes haven't yet been fingered-through by a single researcher. Others, like the papers of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., barely slide back on the shelf before another biographer or graduate student fills out a request for them. In a given year, 4,000 to 5,000 people don white gloves to handle papers from these collections.
"In our vaults are the lives, complete with all the blemishes, the triumphs, and the defeats, all the good and the evil relating to these individuals and the events they participated in," Gotlieb says. "The papers never lie. That's why they're important."
Going on a charm offensive
The university targets, of course, the first-rate faculty and students who are drawn by such a rich resource. But the opportunity to see records of a person's life unfiltered - to handle their photographs or examine the scratched-out words on a first draft - has an appeal beyond academics. One woman has been coming weekly for nearly 22 years to explore the papers of a favorite author - a purpose serious enough to justify her use of the collection, Gotlieb says.
Building a contemporary collection required ample use of charm and diplomacy. Gotlieb's first step was to approach everyone from writers to scientists, both in the United States and abroad, and solicit their papers.
It took "a lot of massaging, a lot of persuading, a lot of begging," he says, surrounded in his office by some of the treasures that testify to his persistence. "When you start something new, you have to explain what it is &#8230; I mean, what's more personal in your life than your papers?"
Then he had to overcome the skepticism of his peers. Most archivists thought that gathering materials from people who were still alive was "too much of a chance to take, that either death or the patina of time would assure someone was collectible," Gotlieb says. But he had no budget to compete with universities that had a hundred-year head start on historical collections.
Forgoing that "patina of time" left him open to ridicule. "[Critics said] I was throwing my net too wide," he says.
Indeed, one magazine writer opined that Gotlieb could get on the trolley and within a few minutes acquire two or three collections from people in the car.
"Some have criticized [the BU archives] for taking a vacuum-cleaner approach, that they just collect and solicit in a broad, mass-marketing [way]," says Lee Stout, president of the Society of American Archivists and the university archivist at Penn State.
It wasn't until the 1960s and '70s that most archives began to house 20th-century material in earnest, he says. BU got its start early in what Mr. Stout describes as a "watershed period in archival consciousness."
Breaking with tradition
This period reflected a shift "away from traditional political history, the history of great men," Stout says, and toward social history and the contributions of women and African-Americans. "A lot of places began to collect papers from people who had never been looked at before - entertainers, for example."