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Oregon’s Willamette University hires its first archivist


Amid the old yearbooks, senior theses, reel-to-reel tapes and the plastic seal balancing a gold dollar sign on its nose, Mary McKay is in her element.

She is the first archivist at Willamette University, the oldest university in the West.

Since it was founded in 1842 it has become a trove of history.

“The most fun part of my job is you get sucked in,” McKay said. “You just get to explore and learn.”

Willamette only got serious about its past when McKay came on board a year and a half ago as its first real historian.

University Librarian Barbara Dancik said it was Willamette’s 150th anniversary that started school officials thinking about its history, plus the discovery of a box full of records in Eaton Hall during a remodeling project.

“This is really something we need to be doing at Willamette,” Dancik said.

McKay, a Nebraska native, had no ties to Willamette but now is making the school’s history her domain on the second floor of the Hatfield Library.

Thanks to $500,000 raised by the class of 1957, the archives, a climate-controlled storage room with associated offices, is to be upgraded and will double in size to 3,000 square feet.

“The university archives are used for genealogical research a lot,” McKay said.

In Texas she worked in the photo archive of the University of Texas, Austin as well as on the papers of the late Ann Richards, former governor of Texas, and at the Richard B. Russell Library for Research and Political Papers at the University of Georgia in Athens.

A major pat of the holdings include the papers and memorabilia of Mark Hatfield, former Oregon governor and senator, as well as a former Willamette professor and dean. It is not yet open to the public for research.

McKay was attracted to Willamette because she has a history degree, is a certified archivist and can connect the past with the present, Dancik said.

Many of the university’s records were lost in fires at Waller Hall in 1891 and 1919. McKay is planning an exhibit about the fires.

Willamette was founded before Portland, and Seattle and Tacoma in Washington state, existed and is linked to the beginnings of law and government in the Northwest. It educated many of the state’s first leaders, artists and businesspeople and established the first schools of law and medicine in the Northwest.

It grew from one teacher and a handful of students in 1842 to 333 teachers and 2,729 students today.

“Even though Willamette didn’t have a historian, there were a lot of people who saved history,” McKay said.

One Willamette staff member saved the records of the Willamette Glee, a campus vocal tradition abandoned a few years ago and revived last year with the help of those records.

More history probably resides with graduates, who now are sharing what they have.

“They’re starting to know that the word is getting out that we’re interested in preserving our history in a systematic way,” McKay said.

She produced a bundle of bubble wrap containing a cup and saucer, memorabilia of a bygone literary society, the Philodosians.

The collection includes old scrapbooks, photos, notes, even napkins, 19th century-bound copies of the Oregon Statesman newspaper and the personal papers of Robert Notson, late publisher of The Oregonian, including a newspaper he published at age 11.

McKay works with Mission Mill Museum, which curates early Jason Lee Mission history and the Marion County Historical Society.

Another asset is the university yearbook, the Wallulah, discontinued last year. It has photos, names, narratives and other history.

McKay knows that letters, scrapbooks and yearbooks are being replaced by electronic formats that leave no footprint.

“We are still excavating,” McKay said. “I’m grateful for all the folks who saved Willamette history.”

Information from: Statesman Journal,

–Associated Press

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