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Ask an Archivist: Tamar Chute of The Ohio State University

June 3, 2021 • Sam Grabel

In our first installment of Ask an Archivist, we sat down with Tamar Chute, head of archives and university archivist at The Ohio State University, to chat about the history of the archives, its modern uses, and how the pandemic affected and inspired some of the archives initiatives. In addition to the University Archives, Tamar manages the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Archival Program and the Ohio Public Policy Archives. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

History Factory: What is the history of The Ohio State University Archives?

Tamar Chute: As the university was approaching its centennial in 1970, there was a historian on campus who pushed for the creation of a university archives. Our mission since then is to document the history of the university.

HF: Your archives were created for the centennial in 1970, which means that the sesquicentennial was last year. Were there any activities that you supported with the university for the 150th?

TC: Yes. Our actual 150th anniversary was 2020, but the university administrators decided that it made better sense to celebrate within an academic year instead of trying to do a calendar year, so it was the academic year 2019-2020. We started talking to the president’s office quite early, along with people from marketing and communications. We were very thankful that they understood from the start that if we really wanted to do this, there had to be a budget involved. They hired a sesquicentennial director to manage university-wide projects. One of the outstanding things was they wanted the current faculty and staff to be involved in the celebration. They also wanted to focus on the university going forward.

We did a photographic history book of the university; we did a free online class on the history of the university with the distance education folks. Our archival team worked on two physical exhibits, which were housed in our main library, where we have an exhibit gallery. The second exhibit ended up being changed into a virtual exhibit because we had it up for a month and then the university closed, because of COVID-19.

HF: Can you discuss how changing an exhibit from physical to digital-only worked? Was it a like-for-like transfer, or did you have to adapt it ?

TC: We did change it. So, our initial idea was it was going to be one to one. We already had the content. We had written all the labels. We have everything, so why wouldn’t it be exactly the same? Well, it’s not. We had a lot of mannequins that had, for instance, an old football uniform and then a current football uniform. Some things just didn’t translate well into a digital environment.

Other things did really well. We had a case on each of the university celebrations, so the founding, when the university turned 50, when we turned 100. That was real easy to convert to digital.

Another thing that we did was inspired by a Society of American Archivists conference. I saw a presentation that Rutgers did on slavery and the founding of Rutgers. I texted the new director of the sesquicentennial and I said, “We have got to do this. We have got to use this opportunity as a part of the sesquicentennial, as an opportunity to highlight underrepresented voices at the university.” So we created the Carmen Collection to capture those set of diverse stories and voices unique to Ohio State to help advocate for a  more diverse and interconnected tomorrow.

And it’s been great. We have been able to connect with some people that hadn’t really connected to the university. It’s also given us an opportunity to hear from people who say, “I have other stories. I have content that maybe you don’t have.” We’ve set up several oral histories for people that have seen the site and have thought, Oh, the university is actually interested in something that happened to me when I was a student.

HF: Apart from sidelining the sesquicentennial and forcing everyone out of the office, how else did the pandemic impact archival initiatives you were working on?

TC: We launched two surveys for students and faculty and staff about their experiences. We decided to do that because the student newspaper contacted us and asked what had happened in 1918 with the influenza epidemic. So we provided what we could to them. But they asked, “What about the students? What did the students think? What did they feel?” And I said, “We don’t have that from that time period. We don’t have any diaries. We don’t have any reflections.”

And so we thought, OK, well, in 100 years, someone’s going to care what did the students think and what were their lives like in 2020. And so we decided to do a student survey, completely anonymous. We also identified which university Twitter accounts were providing the most information about COVID-19. We captured those as well as we could. We also have an Internet Archive account for website capture. So we can quickly document those communications.

It was good to be able to say to students who answered the survey that part of you giving us this information will help the university in the future. We also uncovered some facts and did a blog post on the person who was in charge of student health in 1918. He actually advocated for social distancing and masks, which was fantastic. Look, we’ve done this before, folks.

HF: What’s your favorite item in the collections that you manage?

Image courtesy of The Ohio State University Archives

TC: Yeah, it’s hard to say my favorite, but I think the most important item that we have is the very first Registrar’s book, which is a ledger of the first students that came to campus. It’s their transcript. It’s handwritten. It has their names, their ages, where they came from, their guardian, and then what classes they took and whether or not they passed or failed. When I talk to students about the importance of the archives and the university as a whole, I highlight the importance of documenting the students and their education. We do all sorts of other things, but if we can’t show that we’ve taught students, then what’s the point?

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