The Treasures in Millersville’s Archives

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[Photo Courtesy of Millersville’s Archives and Special Collections]

There is a story behind every university just as there is behind every picture. Millersville certainly has a story, and every student plays a part in it. They have done so since Millersville’s establishment in 1855 as the first normal school of Pennsylvania. The Archives and Special Collections are evidence of this. Rare books, oral histories, manuscripts of notebooks, diaries, ledgers, etc., yearbooks, catalogs, alumni publications, letters and more are available to any student who is interested in Millersville’s story.

Marilyn Parrish, special collections librarian and university archivist, shared that Millersville has “unusually rich collections,” worth at least $500,000. They are particularly strong in education history and Pennsylvania German history (most of which was printed locally or belonged to Millersville’s co-founders), but students often find “the funny things” to be the most interesting. These commonly include rules of behavior and wacky, outdated medical books.

Library Technician Janet Dotterer explained that Millersville’s early days often attract the most curiosity, when the dorms for boys and girls were at opposite ends of the campus. The student body then was quite varied, ranging from age 15 to late 20s. The majority came from teaching in one-room schoolhouses with the desire to become better teachers. There was also the Model School for first through sixth-graders. With such a diverse age group, detailed rules of conduct were a big deal. The course catalogs laid them out clearly; for example, conversations between students of opposite sexes were forbidden in certain rooms. Meals were at set times and being tardy resulted in firm consequences. Slippers were required to aid in silent walking through dorm halls (Millersville University Catalog, 1860-1861, Pages 32-33). Good behavior was further spelled out in the series entitled Perfect Manhood and Perfect Womanhood.

“The autograph books have always been fascinating to me,” Dotterer continued. The first yearbook was only printed in 1889. Before then, students received “autograph books”—rather like the pages in modern yearbooks that are meant for sign­atures and messages. “It’s fun to read what they had to say to one another,” confided Dotterer. The penmanship of the notes, the language, and the messages all profess their being written in a different century.

Students are repeatedly surprised when they examine many of the archives. “It’s fun to watch their reactions,” Parrish said with a smile.

Both Parrish and Dotterer emphasized how studying the archives often leads students to realize that they live within a certain context. “There’s a lot of cultural assumptions broken when students look at some of the materials,” Parrish said.

Students may take certain courses that require extensive use of the archives. Some of these courses are in history, English, sociology, and education. These are courses in which “students learn how to use primary sources in doing research,” explained Dotterer. But there is something for just about every class in the archives. Students not enrolled in such courses often use the archives on their own for research projects—over 200 researchers did so in March alone. A recently graduated math major, according to Dotterer, used old math textbooks in order to write her senior thesis on the evolution of a mathematical formula.

Because the primary focus of Millersville’s Archives and Special Collections is to be of use to students, the materials are kept in the best condition possible. They are stored in climate-controlled, secure spaces and some have been rebound. “When new materials come in, we inspect them pretty closely,” said Parrish. Much of the material has also been digitalized so that students may access it easily online.

There are a number of exceptional photographs that have been archived, as well, and that serve as helpful glimpses into the past that sometimes written archives cannot provide. The photograph of the women’s basketball team is a good example. The team is quite small compared to those of today. Their hair is different, too: it’s in poufs, swept back into large bows. Their uniforms are roomy dresses with sleeves reaching the elbows. Their surroundings suggest an attic-like room, not a gym. These serious-faced girls look nothing like modern basketball players and yet, in their day, they were very modern. Women’s sports were not exceedingly popular then.

At that time, when the world was on the brink of a new century, the faculty of Millersville sensed the rising of a new culture. Taken from page one of the August 1876 issue of The Normal Monthly (an educational outreach publication) are the words of faculty member Charles H. Harding: “As young people in this country, ‘our hour has come.’ Our grandsires stamped their image and superscription upon the century just closing. They who shall call the next halt 100 years hence will look back to us as their grandsires.”

Today, we have more or less called that “halt.” We are Millersville’s next century of students. Parrish and Dotterer are well acquainted with the changes that occur from one century to the next, having studied the archives created in 1855 up through recent material. Yet both have observed that much of the initial spirit of Millersville has endured, especially in the excellence and affordability of education.

Parrish and Dotterer particularly expounded on the excellence of faculty members, beginning with men such as James P. Wickersham, John Fair Stoddard, and Edward Brooks, who influenced not only their own school but numerous others. As faculty members of the first normal school in Pennsylvania, they wrote textbooks and curriculums that schools all over the country utilized. They were considered experts. Millersville, even in the 19th century, attracted foreign students from France, Wales, and even the Caribbean.

The atmosphere of the campus grounds themselves has not changed much, either. The abiding charm of “beautiful fountains and gardens,” according to Parrish, has remained.

Currently, there is an exhibit organized by Dotterer on the eight floor of McNairy Library, home to Millersville’s Archives and Special Collections. It collaborates with the slideshow exhibit in the library’s atrium, entitled President’s Commission on the Status of Women: 25th Anniversary. Students are encouraged to visit and gain an impression of the many types of treasures Millersville has to offer within its archives.

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