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Campus | December 5, 2016

When junior Paris Sanders’ professor wanted her class on women in the 1950s to do a project on the history of civil disobedience at Tufts, she and her classmates were told to look to Tufts Digital Collections and Archives (DCA). Housed in the basement of Tisch Library and home to over 4,300 cubic feet of records, the DCA is a highly useful resource little-known among students.

“It was really valuable to see the material we were studying have a tangible history at Tufts, even if it was disheartening to see dorm guidelines that required women to have dates signed in up until 1962,” said Sanders.

Dan Santamaria, Director of the DCA and the University Archivist for Tufts, agrees. Santamaria, who came to Tufts a little over two years ago, said through the archives “you can learn something every day about almost anything that you are interested in.”

Santamaria sees one of the DCA’s main functions—beyond the quotidian research and fact-finding tasks they do for the administration—as a way to “connect students to the history of [Tufts], and the people who came before them.”

In his mind, this is important for all students—particularly for students with marginalized identities. “I think being at a college or university like Tufts can be an isolating experience sometimes, I mean for everyone, but especially if you are member of a group that isn’t as represented within the larger student community,” he said. Santamaria sees the archives as a place in which students might be able to locate themselves when representation feels difficult or even impossible to find.

Freeden Oeur, a professor in the Sociology Department, has found the DCA to be “an especially wonderful resource” for his course, the Sociology of Higher Education. He sees the archives as a way for his students to get a more complete sense of Tufts’ past. Oeur said, “Because we’re so used today to widely available digital content, it’s kind of exhilarating to read and analyze letters composed with a typewriter, internal memos, private notes, and the like—all these complex parts that make up a larger university consciousness thinking through its place in a constantly changing social world.”

Oeur’s statements are echoed by Santamaria, who stressed how useful the DCA can be to understand our school’s past. “You can learn about what an institution values from what is in the archives…like how curriculum developed over time and what the university thought was important to teach, how land was acquired or when they thought it was important to build buildings or dorms.” Santamaria also added that the archives could help us better understand current campus events. For example, the archives contain history of how Tufts treated custodial staff and compensated workers, which could inform student activism and contextualize current campus policies.

Archives can also help inform what an institution historically has not valued—what a university chose to put in its archives speaks to what they wanted preserved and remembered. Santamaria said Tufts is no exception to this. While Tufts has admitted Black students since the late 19th century, Santamaria added that that “type of demographic information was not deemed important or useful to capture at that time.” The DCA, Santamaria, the six other staff members who work there, as well as the many Black faculty, staff, and alumni who started the effort to document Black life and history at Tufts, are now working to rectify this gap in the archive. This is some of the daily work DCA staff finds themselves involved in.

The DCA also contains documents that speak to the racism endemic to Tufts’ history, such as past newspapers that discuss blatant racism casually. An excerpt from a Tufts Weekly article on “Baby Parties” found in the archives from May 13, 1925 describes sophomores at Jackson (the women’s college within Tufts) who played the role of “torturers,” and “roved around” campus dressed up as Ku Klux Klan members. The DCA also holds records of events like the Horrible Parades, where during the 19th and early 20th century, White Tufts students would march around campus in blackface and yellowface. On the subject Santamaria said, “It’s our job to document what happened, and to provide equitable access to the material we have. We want to document [the Horrible Parades], and make it available to people.” The DCA and its records can be a tool to help us confront Tufts’ past, rather than simply store it away.

Another way the DCA might lend itself to students is its role in preserving institutional memory. Because students only inhabit this campus for a short time, group memory can be quickly lost and forgotten. Santamaria hopes this is a place the DCA could step in. “If you are interested in something, and you are trying to change something…it probably means there are going to be a lot of people in the future that are interested in your work…so we want to try to capture that,” Santamaria said. DCA staff encourages student groups to both use archives to better understand their institution and the work done before them, and even wants student groups to put their own work in the archives.

Beyond these resources that the archives provide, many students go to the DCA simply for research purposes. Sophomore Audrey Falk, recounted a successful experience where the archivists were “super helpful,” and that doing archival research helped her “understand how societal issues…have played out at Tufts in the past.” However, some students, like junior Ray Bernoff, did describe some difficulty in finding the research he needed for his project on hazing and initiation rituals at Tufts before the 1960s. While this is often natural in archival research, Santamaria says the DCA is really dedicated to “lowering barriers to accessing this material.” The DCA hopes to work on increasing transparency, making sure everything they have is described online, implementing a system so students can more easily find digitized work, and refining their request system.

These changes will only serve to benefit students. Santamaria emphasized just how much students can learn from coming to the archives, knowledge that extends beyond Tufts. “Archival research…helps you develop a lot of analytical critical thinking skills,” he explained. “When you are actually doing archival research you are just confronted with all the stuff that got created, the raw evidence of people’s lives and work…you really need to look at it and analyze it and…figure out what they were trying to accomplish, what their motivations were… I think developing those skills are really valuable in today’s world.”