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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

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They call me vaultbreaker

MacKenzie Shanahan ’14 and Cynthia Amezcua ’14 observe the items from the vault.
Vault - Shadman Asif
MacKenzie Shanahan ’14 and Cynthia Amezcua ’14 observe the items from the vault. Photo by Shadman Asif.

By Lisa Oyolu

At 8 p.m. on April 29, visitors filed into the Burling basement to attend the second annual Break Open the Vault event which featured items from Burling’s Special Collections and Archive, including student publications from various points in Grinnell’s history, 100-year-old football gear, rare books and postcards from the early 20th century.

The Break Open the Vault event was conceived by Sam Dunnington ’14. While working in the vault which houses the items in Burling’s Special Collections and Archive, Dunnington often came across items which range from former Grinnell College President John H.T. Main’s cane to student-created maps of the College campus from the 1920s. Break Open the Vault was inspired by Dunnington’s desire to allow students to browse the archives, which they cannot normally do.

“I would find weird, interesting things, but since … people can’t just wander back, the only way that you would find them is if you had a very specific research topic that led to that particular object,” said Dunnington.

Access Services Library Assistant Chris Gaunt finds the annual event to be very beneficial to the faculty, staff and student population of the College.

“I just think it’s a great idea that they bring out [items from the archive] so that we see some of the things … that we own that are valuable but most of the time are kept away from our eyes and hands,” Gaunt said. “This is that one time when they selectively put some things out and tell us a little bit about them.”

Special Collections Librarian and Archivist of the College Catherine Rod, Chris Jones ’16, Dunnington, Diane Lenertz ’15 and Stephanie Porter ’14, selected items from the Special Collections and Archive that piqued their interest.

The items in the collection were discovered in the vault while Dunnington, Lenertz and Porter were doing research, reshelving books or just poking around.

“We pulled things that we [found] interesting, because as students and as archivists that work with students … if we think it’s interesting, we think other people will think it’s interesting,” Lenertz said.

Many of the objects from the collection displayed at Break Open the Vault demonstrated the commonalities and differences in the lifestyles between past and current Grinnellians.

“[The archive] is the history of the College, and one of the interesting things about looking at the history over the past 165 years is there are certain core values that do manifest themselves—the idea of social justice—you can see from the founding of the College, you can see it at different times during the life cycle and you can see it in some of the student publications,” Rod said.

Though characteristics like activism can be traced among Grinnellians throughout history, there are also differences that can be noted about Grinnell students and the College during various points in time.

From the archive collections, one can see that the South Campus dormitories were once all-female, while the North Campus dormitories were once all-male. Students used to live in the same dorm during the entirety of their four years at Grinnell, which allowed them to form close-knit communities.

The Special Collections and Archive unit gives students the ability to improve research skills by examining captivating sources.

“To be able to get a hands-on look at how they might be conducting research in the future in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere is a great learning opportunity,” Jones said.

In addition to being a useful tool for Grinnellians to observe the progression of the College and hone their research skills, Burling’s Special Collections and Archive is also a tool which can be used by those outside of the Grinnell community to gain an improved understanding of various events in history.

“We get researchers who are looking at issues globally or nationally and want to see how it played out at Grinnell College, and so we do a lot of research to see how this affects the College,” Rod said. “Alumni do some pretty amazing things, so people will research about their lives and find out what were they like [or] what they did when they were in College. “

Rod emphasized that there is merit in students observing the items from the vault.

“People don’t often think about the archives or special collections as a place that might have something they’d be interested in, and that’s what we hope things like tonight [can change],” Rod explained.

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