St. Olaf College | News

St. Olaf archives seek to tell a broader story of life on the Hill

Kristell Benson, lead archivist and Mary Barbosa-Jerez, head of strategy for library collections and archives

Many people associate archives with musty basements and ancient ghost stories. However, if you visit St. Olaf’s archives in Shaw-Olson Center for College History, you won’t find a single mention of ghosts. While the college’s archives are indeed in the lower level of Rolvaag Memorial Library, it serves a much different, and more comprehensive, purpose.

Tucked away in filing cabinets — and increasingly, also in digital files — are the documents that record the history of St. Olaf. There are yearbooks and newspaper clippings, maps and meeting minutes, photographs and recordings, all documenting some of the people, places, and events that have shaped the college.

“The contents of the College Archives are our record of the College’s history,” says Mary Barbosa-Jerez, head of strategy for library collections and archives. “The documents and artifacts in our care are a reflection of the people and events that the immigrants who founded this community felt were important to them. What they saved helps us understand how they saw themselves, how they hoped to be remembered, and what they thought we in the future should know about them and the work they did.” 

As St. Olaf approaches a major historical milestone — its 150th anniversary, in 2024 — the archives’ collections will be in the spotlight. For the staff in the archives, it’s an opportunity to share the college’s history, dispel myths about what can (and can’t) be found in the archives, and to showcase the archives’ renewed and ongoing efforts to document a more inclusive and comprehensive history of life on the Hill. 

The archives’ mission and approach has evolved since the 1960s, when the college began collecting materials in advance of St. Olaf’s 100th anniversary. Under the leadership of the college’s first three archivists, Joan Olson (known affectionately by the community as “Joan of Archives”), history professor Gary De Krey ’71, and writer and storyteller Jeff Sauve, the focus was on compiling materials from and telling the stories of the college’s earliest years. 

In 2018 Kristell Benson, now the college’s lead archivist, was hired as the college’s first full-time professional archivist. She brings a new approach to archival practice, including identifying gaps in the college’s historical recordkeeping and developing policy changes to increase the variety of perspectives recorded in the archives. 

Benson and Barbosa-Jerez both acknowledge that the archives are incomplete, especially when considering the histories of people from underrepresented groups on campus. Barbosa-Jerez expresses this shortcoming plainly: sometimes, she says, “what you hope to find [in the archives] may not exist.” Although there were people in St. Olaf’s early history who were neither Norwegians nor immigrants, the record of their time here is very limited if, in fact, it was saved at all.

Over the past few years, with Benson’s professional archival background, the college archives has intentionally made policy changes to ensure that the record left from this era of St. Olaf’s history is more complete. The archives’ staff is collaborating with students, staff, and faculty on projects like an oral history with the college’s first Black faculty member, Assistant Professor of Sociology La Francis Rodgers-Rose. By having more diverse voices on the record, Barbosa-Jerez hopes that more Oles will feel connected to the community and want to add to the archives.

Benson shares that hope. 

“Each of us has a chance to do what our predecessors did: think about what’s important to our community today, and to add a record of what our community looks like, what we believe, and what we are working towards to the archival record. I want everyone at St. Olaf to know that they are making history every day, and we’d like them to donate or deposit a record of their lives in the archives.”

She invites all members of the community to explore the archives, and to consider depositing their work and experiences. Anyone can make an appointment to visit the archives for research.

When thinking about the future, Barbosa-Jerez is bold. She envisions a community where every member considers their work an important part of institutional history and contributes to the archives as often as every year. By creating a culture of everyone in the community adding to and learning from the archives, the archives will actualize its goal of preserving the history of the entire St. Olaf community.