Preserving a Century of StoriesArchivist Sister Margery Smith is keeper of St. Catherine's treasures.
BY MARYBETH LORBIECKI, SP '81
PHOTO BY ANDY FERRON
Archivist Sister Margery Smith is keeper of St. Catherine's treasures.
St. Catherine's archivist, Margery Smith, CSJ, SP '49, oversees a treasure trove that's been carefully crammed into the basement of the St. Paul campus library. "These rooms contain the history of the 20th century of the College of St. Catherine," she says.
And so much more.
Besides paper files, the College archives contain more than 8,000 photographs and 4,500 artifacts, Smith estimates. Anyone studying the history of St. Kate's — or of women, Catholicism, the liberal arts, book printing and binding, or children's literature — will find a lifetime's worth of study. The archives are packed with rare and valuable items: some from before the Christian era, others from the early days of printing.
As she looks toward retirement, Sister Margery has many ideas for carrying her work forward. "More people need to see the riches of what we have been carefully preserving," she says.
The archive's wide-ranging holdings have been used for the College's centennial in 2005, class presentations, research, art exhibits and "The Reflective Woman" and "Global Search for Justice" classes, among other purposes. But Smith would like to see more people take advantage of the archive's offerings. "Many of the liberal arts classes could find rich resources in the archives," she says. "We are particularly set up for small classes of 11 or fewer."
Opening the archive to students is a priority close to her heart. "I'm first and foremost a teacher," she says. "I always think of my work with the archives as an extension of teaching."
Smith chose St. Kate's for her undergraduate degree, in part, because other Catholic women's colleges pictured students in formals and at tea. The St. Catherine brochure showed vibrant scenes of women tobogganing down Chapel Hill and strolling in saddle shoes and plaid skirts. That independent spirit hasn't left her. When public television's traveling "Antiques Roadshow" came to town, she was hospitalized but had herself wheeled into the TV studio bearing one of the archives' precious dolls (estimated worth: $3,000).
After graduating from St. Kate's, Smith taught high school, earned a master's degree in English from Marquette University and a doctorate from the University of Chicago, later traveling to Cambridge, England on a Fulbright scholarship. She returned to her alma mater as a professor, teaching in the English Department for 40 years, before moving to the archives and the graduate library program.
LOSING THE PAPER TRAIL
Over these past 15 years, Smith has initiated up-to-date preservation techniques and a small rare-book restoration program. Now, she wants to move the archives into the 21st century, an ambitious project that, she believes, will require a large investment.
She wants to see the archive's cardcatalog system reorganized to meet contemporary archival standards. The current typewritten system was set up in 1976 by archive founders Sister Maria Inez Johnson and Sister Mary William Brady. "We are now in the transition from a paper system to the paperless," she says. "We need to digitize our holdings."
Since 2008, issues of the student newspaper, The Wheel, and the student literary magazine, Ariston, have been available online. Issues of The Wheel prior to 1999 (along with Ariston issues from 1905 to 1955) were digitized so they could be searched via the St. Catherine library site. However, many college publications still need attention: the 1956 to 2006 issues of Ariston, all La Concha and Etos yearbooks, and all issues of SCAN until 2006.
"I also want to take digital photos of all our artifacts to catalog them on the computer with notes on their history," Smith says. "Periodically there has been talk of selling some items to provide funds for preserving, cataloging and insuring the main collections. But that can't be done until we know what we have, where each piece came from and the nature of the donors' intentions."
As St. Catherine University grows, Smith would like every administrative office, school and academic department to establish criteria for preserving its photographs, published works, meeting notes, biographies, letters and artifacts. Those should be downloaded to secure digital archives and organized for easy retrieval, she says.
But don't look to Sister Margery to lead the charge. "I'm no longer 25," she says. "It's my job to see that the history in my keeping is preserved and searchable for the future. It is now up to others to plan for preserving the 21st century's history."
MARYBETH LORBIECKI , SP'81, is an author, freelance writer and communications specialist who writes for the College of St. Catherine Alumnae/i Association.
For more information about the St. Catherine archives, visit stkate.edu/archives.
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