Building the Archives Collection at Western Oregon University
by Lotte Larsen Meyer
University Archivist, 1987-1998, Reference Librarian, 1976-1998
In the Fall of 1987, when I was appointed head of University Archives by the new Library director Dr. Gary Jensen, few people were inquiring about the University’s history. I was interested in promoting, organizing and researching what I saw as a very dynamic institution which had many fascinating personalities, stories and events to describe.
My training as a Reference Librarian with a Master’s degree in History proved very useful by constantly helping me formulate questions about the University history that needed answers.
In 1987 there were very few files that helped others learn about Western’s history. Without the constant questions from the University community and local citizens, the Archives would not have the wealth of files it has today. The questions and their answers helped me organize the Archives into a variety of categories such as Buildings, Faculty, Student Clubs, Student Life, Presidents, and Alumni.
During my first year, when relatives of Western’s founders came in pursuit of genealogical information, I discovered there were no files entitled Butler, Murphy, or Campbell that I could share with them. I vowed this wouldn’t happen again, so I spent considerable time creating files from material found in local newspapers and university publications. I drove to the Butler cemetery south of Monmouth to take pictures of the founders’ graves and create driving instructions. All this information was very useful when the University commemorated it’s first Founder’s Day celebration in 1996. Contact with these families led to valuable donations. For instance, the descendants of Ira F. M. Butler donated his original letters written from Monmouth in the 1850s; they are available online now.
At the Library’s Reference Desk, students regularly asked questions about University history for the term papers they were writing. To help them I created informational notebooks themed on such topics as why Monmouth was an alcohol-free city (until 2003), how frequently the University was threatened with closure, and how the Christmas tree lighting tradition got started.
Other inquiries for information came from newspaper writers for the student paper and from the Polk County Itemizer. Inevitably they would ask questions about topics for which there was not yet a file, leading me to do more research and create new files on such topics as the history of places named Monmouth (in Wales, New Jersey, Illinois, and Oregon), Halloween traditions at the University, how the name Western wolves was selected for the athletic team, who was Jessica Todd for whom Todd Hall was named, and how did the Stadium fire get started.
An exhibition to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Columbus Day Storm (Oct. 12, 1962) provided many stories from former students, staff and faculty who responded to my letter asking for their memories. They talked about being in class right before the storm, how the famous photo of the Campbell Hall belltower toppling came to be taken, and how local businesses dealt with power outages for the next few days.
Presidents, faculty and staff asked questions about institutional history including documentation for all the institutional name changes and the source of the quote “who dares to teach, must never cease to learn,” found on the front of the Instructional Technology Building. When history professor Gary Huxford wrote his new history of the school, I assisted him in locating archival materials, as I did when former Provost Bill Cowart wrote an article about the early years of the teacher training program at Western.
By the 1990s, I had built up many files, so I wrote scripts for student actors to portray famous faculty during living history tours on Homecoming Day and gave numerous presentations about the University’s history to local historical groups, Dorm RA’s, and history classes.
These files continue to be available today to help students and the general public understand the past and therefore better understand the present.