University archivist captures, maintains Penn State's history
While summer represents somewhat of a slow time for Penn State's University Park campus, the same can't be said for Jackie Esposito, the university archivist who oversees the operation, storage and maintenance of hundreds of thousands of pieces of Penn State memorabilia. From accepting new collections to ensuring the safe storage of the collections amid construction, there's always something that needs the attention of Esposito, known for her gregarious personality and entertaining historical presentations.
CCG: In your role as university archivist, what are your main job responsibilities, and what are your main objectives and concerns?
JE: I'm in charge of documenting Penn State's history, going back to 1855, making sure that we have the records that we'll need 100 or 200 years from now, making sure that the records going back to 1855 are preserved and then the materials that people need to use are available when they need them.
CCG: So you're basically discovering, uncovering and sharing Penn State's history?
JE: That's an excellent description, yes.
CCG: How exciting is that, and how often are you learning something new about Penn State?
JE: I think it's extraordinarily exciting, and I learn new things pretty much every day. ... Either there's something new that happened, or I come across somebody or something that didn't cross my radar and I find out about them, or it's something little. (Recently), the library hosted new students and parents, and we had 138 parents, and I pointed out to them that there were more parents in the Paterno Reading Room than there were original students. The class of 1859 only had 119 students, so we had more parents in that room than we had original students, so making those kinds of comparisons, when did things happen, how did they happen, is this something that is repetitive at Penn State or is this something brand new that's never happened before.
CENTRE COUNTY GAZETTE: Does the summer signify a downtime for the Penn State Libraries, or is there still plenty to do?
JACKIE ESPOSITO: In the summer, because there are fewer students on campus, it's actually our busiest time for university records transfers. We will work with university offices to look at what their oldest records are and transfer them to the archives during the summer, and that's our busy time. We get a lot of our collections during the summer.
CCG: With all the construction that's taking place on campus and in the Libraries recently, how does that impact how you store and maintain the various collections the Libraries houses?
JE: You want to protect items from dust, so they're either going to get moved or covered during construction. We also want to make sure that there's no environmental damages to materials, and generally we look at what rooms are going to be effected by the construction, what needs to be moved and what can just be covered.
Some things can just be covered, but if a particular document or an item could be in danger, we would move it. For example, the Fred Waring's America collection has suit jackets, those have to be covered, and those have to be put into garment bags.
CCG: How much has Penn State grown since its inception and over the last few decades, and has any of this growth surprised you?
JE: It doesn't surprise me, in terms of where the founders — and to me, the founders are Evan Pugh and George Atherton — saw Penn State going, in terms of what it could accomplish in research. ... What kinds of research have we done, how have we helped the community, the nation and internationally. For example, we have faculty who helped to write the Pure Food and Drug Acts, so I think you can look at Penn State today, and still see a lot of the foundational growth from 100 years ago, because these are the things we want to set out to do. Can we continue to keep growing and doing more and more things? I think the sky's the limit; we can do just about anything we set our minds to. We've got the best brains in the world here, we've got the energy of the students, we've got a lot of phenomenal facilities here, and I think as long as we focus our energies on doing what we do best, which is teaching, research and service, to me there's not limit to what Penn State can do.
CCG: I'm a history geek, and I walked around the reading room and saw Italian books from the 14th century, I love that stuff. Is it fair to say you're much the same way, because it seems like this is much more than a job to you.
JE: I love the stories. The narratives of people's lives are endlessly fascinating to me. I read historical biographies, and I love finding out what people's stories are, what got them motivated, why they did what they did and what influenced them.
CCG: What's your favorite piece of memorabilia in Penn State's collection?
JE: One of my favorite things is a cane that was given out at alumni reunions, and it was given out for the 25th reunion, so the assumption was that people were old enough, they needed a cane, they were in their 40s, but inside the cane is a map of campus. They figured people hadn't been back, and they wouldn't be able to find their way around campus, and I think the psychology behind that is great. Some of my other favorite things are the photographs of early Penn State life. We have pictures of women from the 1880s running track on the outside railroad tracks, outside of the engineering building, in full-length wool skirts and heels. You can't appreciate where we are if you don't know where we've been and how much things have changed and what life was like to be a student here at Penn State in the early days through the wars, through the 1960s, so those types of things, I really like. ... It's the individual stories that are great.
CCG: Outside of a research interest or a personal interest, what's the value in Penn State understanding its history and knowing how it grew and became the university it is today?
JE: I think it's critically important for Penn State to understand where it came from. I think it's important for it to understand what its core values are, and should be, and I think it's very important, especially now, as we move forward and make a lot of changes that are being recommended, especially from external agencies, for us to understand what are the things that are important to being the land-grant university in the Commonwealth, to being Penn State University. What does that really mean to the alums, to the students, to the heritage that we've developed over the last 160 years.