Piecing together the past

Marquette’s archives contain large collections of curated documents, images, videos and more that are precious resources for researchers inside and outside the university.

Dorothy Day (center) with Rose Cohn and Charlotte Margolies hold copies of The New York Call, February 9, 1917.

By Tracy Staedter

With its tall ceilings, oak-paneled walls, polished tables and expansive windows, Marquette’s Department of Special Collections and University Archives may elicit the kind of hushed tones typically found in libraries or chapels. But don’t be fooled by appearances.

Founded in 1960 by Rev. Rafael Hamilton, S.J., who chaired the Department of History for nearly a quarter century, Marquette’s archives attract anyone — scholars, writers, students, documentarians, reporters, alumni and sports fans — interested in the raw materials of history. They come from near and far to study the papers of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. They come to read original manuscripts and other materials in the J.R.R. Tolkien Collection. They come to watch decades-old videos of legendary basketball star Maurice H. “Bo” Ellis, Sp ’77. They come to marvel over rare books, including those printed before 1501, called incunabula. They sort through letters, diaries, financial records, phone logs, speeches and reports looking for threads, looking for clues. They examine photographs, listen to audio or watch videos. They piece things together to make sense of the past.

Amy Cooper Cary, head of Special Collections and University Archives, says that’s what archives and manuscript collections are designed to do — “provide the context that historians then use to form their own opinions, their theories, their narratives.”

In a typical year without a pandemic, the department usually tallies more than 3,000 uses of its more than 250 manuscript collections and 300 university archives collections. A growing digital collection receives more than 20,000 visits per year, with inquiries between 2020 and 2021 coming from researchers in 44 states and 19 foreign countries.

“The archives are a worldwide resource,” says Cary. “And we constantly work to improve access.”

This dynamic hub of research materials, which are frequently donated and occasionally purchased, holds the university’s past and also advances scholarship on a wide range of subjects.

Boarding school investigation

“It is voluminous,” says Dr. Bryan Rindfleisch, associate professor of history and an expert in Native American history.

He is speaking of one of the largest of the special collections at nearly 800 boxes of material: the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, also known as BCIM, an organization created in 1874 by Most Rev. J. Roosevelt Bayley, archbishop of Baltimore, for the “protection and promotion” of Catholicism among Native Americans in the United States. Special scrutiny has been paid lately to organizations like the BCIM that, with other governmental and religious groups, established and managed more than 350 boarding schools in the U.S. and Canada starting in 1880 and well into the 1980s that were meant to “civilize” Native American children by replacing tribal customs with Christianity. By 1926, approximately 60,000 children in 30 states were relocated to these schools, many of them forcibly. A total of 84 of these schools were managed by Catholic religious orders.

School group in front of St. Mary’s of the Quapaws Mission boarding school in Oklahoma, 1924.

In September 2021, after reports surfaced of unmarked graves at schools in Canada and of stories of abuse, starvation and neglect at boarding schools across North America, Rindfleisch was approached by the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese Tulsa to undertake a thorough investigation of records in Marquette’s Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions collection to better understand operations at 11 Catholic boarding schools in Oklahoma. It’s the first study of its kind by an archdiocese and part of a much larger reconciliation effort between the archdiocese and Indigenous nations of Oklahoma called the Oklahoma Catholic Native Schools Project.

“This is a very collaborative project,” says Rindfleisch. The archdiocese wants the truth,” he says. “I’ve been really happy with the transparency on all levels.”

A letter from a Quapaw family about the treatment of their children at St. Mary’s mission school, 1907.

Working with Soleil Reed, a master’s student in history, Rindfleisch is photocopying and annotating thousands of administrative files, financial records, newsletters and letters. They’re looking for clues to events and to the relationship between the BCIM administrators, priests and nuns who ran the schools and Native parents and tribal elders. In some cases, the language indicates mistreatment at a school. In other cases, it reveals collaboration between the bureau and tribal elders over management decisions, such as having an abusive priest removed. Rindfleisch will share his assessment with the archdiocese when he’s finished — in a year or two — and plans to write a book around it.

As more news emerges about Native American boarding schools in North America, Rindfleisch thinks more scholars will request to see these files. “We are the go-to archives for this subject material of any place in the United States. Especially when it comes to Native American history, which is a growing field, you’re going to have a lot of people coming to Marquette for these archives,” he says.

Exhibiting Tolkien

As far as Marquette’s archives go, the J.R.R. Tolkien collection has the most fans. About 800 people visit the department annually just to come face-to-face with original manuscripts, artwork and more created by the English author of The Lord of the Rings (or by scholars and fans in response to Tolkien’s works). The archives have welcomed renowned Tolkien scholars, including Dr. Tom Shippey, professor emeritus at St. Louis University, Dr. Verlyn Flieger, professor emeritus of English at the University of Maryland, and highly cited authors John Rateliff, Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull.

“There’s a hungry audience out there, not just the academic scholars, but some very capable nonacademic scholars whose work is as good as academic scholars,” says Archivist William Fliss, who has curated the Tolkien collection since 2012.

Because the collection is second in size only to one at the University of Oxford, where Tolkien worked as a professor of English language and literature, Fliss accepted invitations a few years ago to temporarily lend parts of the collection to international exhibitions in England and France. Complemented by lectures from expert speakers, such exhibitions draw researchers and fans together under one roof, where new research projects are ignited or continuing studies are strengthened.

Exhibition catalogs can also launch scholarship, says Fliss. They often feature never-before-seen artwork from the Marquette collection, newly released by the Tolkien Estate, the legal body that manages the property of the writer. That release sparks analysis. At the exhibitions in England and France, Fliss advanced a new research project, The JRR Tolkien Fandom Oral History Collection, which documents the voices of fans as they responded to questions about their experience with Tolkien’s works (See “Fan Fellowship,” Marquette Magazine, Winter 2019).

Now Fliss, in collaboration with Dr. Sarah Schaefer, assistant professor of art history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is preparing for an exhibition at Marquette’s Haggerty Museum of Art. J.R.R. Tolkien: The Art of the Manuscript will run from August to December 2022 and will display a variety of manuscripts and literary elements to convey Tolkien’s craft. A philologist and a scholar of medieval literature, Tolkien borrowed verse structures and concepts from ancient writings in order to create poetry and prose richly populated in fantastical creatures, constructed languages and storylines. Copies of working drafts show how Tolkien evolved his narratives from idea to final version.

To help exhibition visitors better understand these connections and the progression of manuscripts, Fliss is incorporating manuscripts, which have been digitally scanned as part of an ongoing reprocessing project in the archives. Visitors to the museum will be able to access a kiosk, where they can navigate through versions of some of the most iconic moments in The Lord of the Rings. More of these works will be available to scholars and fans in the archives.

“One of the points of the project is to make the archives more accessible so that people will come in and take a deeper dive,” says Fliss.

Easy access

Making materials available to the Marquette community and the broader public is of utmost importance to those who work in the Special Collections and University Archives, says Cary. “Every one of my colleagues is committed to providing the best possible service to all of the patrons who come to our doors, physical or virtual,” she says. That may include teaching students how to use the archives, pulling images for Marquette faculty requests, answering questions from journalists and digitizing documents.

One such request came in 2017, after the Vatican officially approved a request to consider the canonization of Dorothy Day, an American journalist who, along with French scholar Peter Maurin, founded the Catholic Worker movement, a social justice campaign to help people living in poverty.

Dorothy Day on her knees, praying at the Church of the Nativity, New York, circa 1970. Photographer Bob Fitch.

A step in the sainthood process called “positio” requires a biographical presentation showing how a Servant of God, as Day has been named, is uniquely holy. Because Marquette acquired records in 1962 of the Catholic Worker movement, including copies of the Catholic Worker newspaper, which Day co-founded in 1933, her personal correspondence, diaries and more, archivists at Marquette were asked by the Dorothy Day Guild in Rome to digitize the files as part of the canonization cause. It took Marquette staff four years, between 2017 and 2021, to complete the task and send the files to Rome. 

“We have been very, very active in trying to strategically and selectively digitize material and to make it accessible,” says Cary.

They’ve begun projects to digitize the papers of war correspondent James Foley, Arts ’96, as well as Distinguished Professor Emeritus Dr. Howard Fuller, long associated with Marquette’s Educational Opportunity Program and the Institute for the Transformation of Learning. Cary and her team are also undertaking the task of providing online access to terabytes of digital photography from the Athletics Department and other units on campus.

It’s a time-consuming task, though, she says. To illustrate how much, she pointed to a project to digitize Marquette’s official student newspaper, the Marquette Tribune. Staff started in 2016 with the first issue, which was published in 1916. So far, a little more than 30 years have been digitized. There’s still a long way to go. In the meantime, Cary and her staff work diligently to accommodate all visitors and all requests.

“The more that we can get our materials out there, the better off researchers are,” says Cary.