St. Olaf receives $300,000 NEH challenge grant for new library vault
The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has awarded St. Olaf College a $300,000 grant to support the construction of a new library vault to preserve the college’s special collections and archives. More than 1 million documents, photographic images, and artifacts in the collections tell the story of Norwegian immigrants who settled the upper Midwest and founded St. Olaf in 1874.
The NEH funding is a challenge grant to help generate at least $900,000 in additional gifts for the project.
“We don’t often think about taking care of old items and keeping them stable, but everything degrades and decays over time, especially objects made from organic materials like the papers, books, textiles, and artifacts in our collections,” says Head of Strategy for Library Collections and Archives Mary Barbosa-Jerez. “Building a new vault is an essential step towards the long-term preservation of these unique materials.”
The new 4,253-square-foot vault in St. Olaf’s Rølvaag Memorial Library will feature state-of-the-art climate control, storage, and handling. It will house several collections, including the holdings of the Norwegian-American Historical Association, the Shaw-Olson Center for College History (St. Olaf College Archives), and Rølvaag Library Special Collections. Currently, these collections occupy spaces with substandard or no climate control.
The college’s collections are extensive and contain items not available elsewhere. Among the holdings are the papers of Ole Rolvaag, author of Giants in the Earth (1927), serials and books that anchored immigrant communities, photographs of homesteads and settlers, the Bodman-Lang East Asian Collection, and a collection devoted to the history and artistry of the book. The collection also contains a number of items from the Medieval period and the Reformation, including a Nuremberg Chronicle and two of Martin Luther’s sermons in pamphlet form.
“We draw scholars from around the country and across the world who come to work with those materials. And those scholars interact and interface with our students, modeling the work of active historians,” Barbosa-Jerez says. “We’ve seen a marked increase in the number of requests to use our materials from scholars outside the St. Olaf community, thanks to the work of our dedicated and very talented catalog librarians.”
The leaders of St. Olaf are determined to preserve and share these collections so that scholars, students, and the general public can learn how immigration can strain and strengthen the human spirit.
“The aspirations of 19th century immigrants resonate with St. Olaf’s current students, including the children of 20th and 21st century immigrants from Vietnam and Somalia, international students, and those who are the first in their family to seek a college degree,” Barbosa-Jerez noted in the grant application.
The new shared vault will preserve the collections in preparation for upgrades in cataloging and digitization. Under a comprehensive management plan, items from the collections will be more readily available so humanities scholars, undergraduates, and public users can integrate, compare and augment their findings.
“In a world in which more and more of our intellectual content is available online, understanding the significance of books as a technological innovation, as an object of daily life, as an art form, and as a means to generate action and cultural change becomes more important than ever,” Barbosa-Jerez says. “We’re incorporating these materials across the curriculum, into classes studying history, English, fine arts, social work, classics, the history of science, studies of the environment, politics — the applications in the classroom are endless.”
Construction of the new vault will be completed so that collections are in place as St. Olaf celebrates its sesquicentennial in 2024. Learn more about it in the video below.