Feb. 18, 2010
Whalen donates scrapbooks to help preserve Cornell past
For some people, scrapbooks are odd bits of papers and old photos, meant to be disassembled and sold to the highest bidder.
For others, such as retired staff member Mike Whalen '69 and Elaine Engst, director of Cornell's Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC), scrapbooks are invaluable artifacts that tell stories, capture a period in someone's life and offer a window to history.
That is why Whalen donated his collection of Cornell scrapbooks and memorabilia -- more than 200 items -- to the Cornell University Library in December. In addition to scrapbooks, the collection (call number: Archives 37-5-3784) includes old Cornell-related newspapers, notebooks used by Cornell students in 1875 and 1893, a parchment diploma from 1896, a set of stereo photographs of Cornell's first buildings and numerous photographs and student portraits.
"I enjoy history, genealogy and photography," said Whalen, "and I've done quite a bit of research on Cornell. When the former provost, Carolyn ("Biddy") Martin, began the New Student Reading Project, I helped by creating a Web site for each year's book selection."
While creating links between the 2006 selection, "The Great Gatsby," and Cornell in the 1920s, Whalen purchased two copies of a student pictorial magazine from that era, The Cornell Graphic, as well as a scrapbook that had been assembled by a Cornell student.
"Those documents got me hooked," Whalen said. "Soon, I was purchasing old photographs and other memorabilia about Cornell, mostly from public auctions like eBay."
One photo in the collection is of William Benjamin Bowler, Class of 1872, who was born in 1851 in Port au Prince, Haiti, and attended Cornell for the 1869-70 academic year. Although the 1870 U.S. Population Census for Ithaca lists him as "white," his photograph would seem to suggest otherwise; if so, he would be the first student of African descent who attended Cornell. What can be said with certainty is that he and another Haitian student who attended Cornell that year, Arthur Bird, were the first Cornell students from the Caribbean.
Engst said that the library has hundreds of student scrapbooks in its collections, especially from the early years, and from 1997 to 2007 when Carol Kammen asked students taking her classes to keep scrapbooks.
All of the library's scrapbooks are catalogued online, usually by name and class year. "They provide wonderful documentation of parts of life that you will not see in history books -- photographs, clippings, menus, programs, dance cards -- they all document the student experience. They provide a great snapshot of what was happening, not just at Cornell, but in Ithaca and in the culture at large," Engst said.
The library has received many scrapbooks; usually they are donated, but sometimes it has to bid on scrapbooks, and many times the bidding goes higher than the library can afford.
"We encourage Cornell alumni and their families to donate their scrapbooks, historical photographs, Cornell-related diaries, letters and notebooks and other ephemera to us," said Engst. "The gift would be tax-deductible, and the material would be catalogued and kept in a climate-controlled environment."
"The scrapbook is worth so much more from a historical and archival perspective when it is together than when it is raided for photographs to sell individually," said Evan Earle '02, collections assistant in RMC. "Especially the large ones -- they have context and emotion, and reveal a progression in what matters most in an individual's life."