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 … store it.

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 … 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."

That might help explain how Gotlieb ended up with Fred Astaire's papers - and shoes the dancer labeled according to the movie in which he wore them.

People who know him say Gotlieb's caring approach was key. It took him years to earn the trust of film star Bette Davis, who donated her collection in 1971. Later, she hung a portrait of herself from the set of "Jezebel" behind his desk, joking that she wanted to keep her eye on him.

Gotlieb once had such territory pretty much to himself. But other institutions eventually began elbowing in. And now that there's more competition for 20th-century archival material, Gotlieb's reputation for a deft touch serves him well as he works with a dealer, bids at an auction, or calls on someone he thinks will be a literary genius.

At times, Gotlieb has gone to great lengths to fulfill his promises. Martin Luther King Jr. held a doctorate in theology from BU, and when he agreed to give his papers to the new archive in July 1964, special measures had to be taken to transport them safely from Atlanta to Boston.

"It was a very dramatic scene," Gotlieb recalls. "The civil rights movement was at its peak.... Dr. King was being threatened all the time…. We were terribly afraid that there would be an attempt to destroy the papers while they were en route here."

His solution? "We asked the truck drivers to take back routes and be very careful." A week passed. No sign of the drivers. Worry started creeping in. Another week went by with no word. Finally, Gotlieb says, the drivers - who had managed to find routes farther "back" than he could have imagined - arrived, "much to our relief."

In 1987, BU had to fight a court challenge to keep the 83,000 documents, which spanned the years from King's childhood to 1964. His widow, Coretta Scott King, argued it had been her husband's wish to bring the papers back to Atlanta. Gotlieb, on the other hand, had a letter from King stating that upon his death the papers would become university property, available for research.

"On the many occasions [that] he sat right in that chair," Gotlieb says, pointing across his massive desk, "he seemed perfectly content and happy with his papers being here." The case ended in BU's favor in 1995. Today, a reading room bearing King's name houses several exhibit cases, one of which displays King's BU grade report - including a C in "Formal Logic."

People interested in seeing more than the public exhibits usually just need to fill out an application stating their research purpose. Gotlieb says he'd like more undergraduates to use the archives. Those who do, he says, handle materials "with great reverence."

A staff of 23 (plus 15 to 20 students) sort, catalog, and preserve the material that flows into the archives. The book vault also houses collections related to the archived subjects - their personal libraries or sets of their published works. The largest single collection of papers came from John McCormack, a Boston native who served as Speaker of the US House from 1962 to 1971. Two people spent two years sorting his 4 million documents.

Some things go in the safe

Gotlieb's investment is so personal that he takes on the air of a patriarch watching over his clan. He speaks of collectees who "come in and live through their lives vicariously … and sit and weep as they recall things."

His protective instincts kick in when he receives potentially embarrassing materials - letters, for instance, that reveal an extramarital affair and may have been sent unintentionally. "Those are things that a curator should take and put in his personal safe, and then, after a period of years, return to a collection. I don't call that censorship, I call that decency and common sense," he explains. Donors can also place restrictions on when their papers can be viewed.

Peter Rand, a longtime author and now a teacher at BU's college of communications, has made use of the school's extensive holdings. He's currently mining the collection on Virgilia Peterson, an American who married a Polish prince and later wrote about her experiences in Poland in the 1930s. In 1995, Mr. Rand also published "China Hands," a book about American journalists in China.

"There is a history here [at BU] in communications that is extremely important," he says.

Rand has an unusual perspective, because some of his own professional papers are housed here. "If there's anything I can contribute by giving my writings to a collection like this, it's that they are handwritten. That reveals something about the process. It can be useful to students in the future who may wonder how things got written."


(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to In the future, will you define our past?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today