Published May 23, 2013
Amy Vilz had that “aha” moment about her life’s work when she entered University Archives to interview as a student assistant. Having just completed her first semester in UB’s MLS degree program, Vilz had a vague inkling she might like archival work, but was uncertain of her focus except that she loved history and historical research. “Sometimes in life, if you’re lucky, things just click and you think, ‘this is it,’” says Vilz of her introduction to the archives as a graduate student.
Nearly a decade later, Vilz is back in 420 Capen, where the archives are housed, this time as the university archivist, succeeding John Edens who retired in 2012. After receiving her MLS degree in 2006, Vilz held archival positions at RIT, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and most recently at D’Youville College, where she was the school’s archivist. Hired in January, she is still settling into her position, learning about the “huge” collection of official records and publications, faculty papers and array of manuscripts, photographs and other materials relating to UB’s history stretching back to the mid-19th century.
Vilz is quick to dispel notions that archives are dusty enclaves far from the public eye. While it’s true that archival collections have special rules intended to safeguard the valuable and fragile materials inside, Vilz says they are better conceived as repositories of living history. “I do think we could do a better job at explaining why we do all the things we do,” she says. “So that it doesn’t feel like an arbitrary, ‘What do you mean, I can’t use a pen?’ ‘Well, because pens can leak and if the ink gets on a document, it’s damaged irretrievably.’
“Moving forward, I think we can counteract misconceptions about archival work in the ways that we collect materials. In the past few years, there has been a movement to ask patrons, students, alumni and community members to help archivists describe their collections. So, for example, all archives have photos that are unidentified with people and events. A lot of times we can narrow the time period down to about 10 years because of clothing styles. But it would be nice to have alumni, students and faculty, and emeritus faculty who could say, ‘I know exactly who this person is. I know exactly what this event is.’”
A Buffalo native who also holds a BA in history from UB, Vilz is still getting her arms around the archives’ vast holdings. “It’s a massive collection in terms of size and the breadth of what it covers,” she says. Along with records of university organizations and all sorts of campus publications, Vilz and her staff collect UB-related ephemera and memorabilia. “The other parts of our collection are what we refer to as manuscript collections. And those are more community-based collections, so there are several topic areas, including the environment, labor and design.”
Vilz is especially excited about the design holdings, as she enjoyed working on a graphic design collection while at RIT. “We’ve been working very closely with the School of Architecture and Planning in getting more material related to design and architecture to expand that area within the manuscript collections.” Among the design holdings are materials relating to UB’s long association with Frank Lloyd Wright and his Darwin D. Martin House, along with several collections of William Huff, emeritus professor of architecture, who studied and worked with famed architect Louis Kahn.
Indeed, holdings in the UB Archives often reflect the range of interests of those with UB connections. Sometimes the resulting archival materials—and how they got here—are a bit quirky in nature. Take the radio scripts from “The Lone Ranger” and “The Green Hornet” donated by their author Fran Striker (1903-1962), who was from Buffalo and who gave his papers to the university. Other collections may relate to community interests but usually have a connection with UB and its educational mission. So, for example, the Archives’ Love Canal holdings originated with the research of Adeline Levine, emeritus professor of sociology. Today, they continue to be consulted by a wide public. “The Love Canal materials are still very relevant to people,” Vilz says.
In another example of audience outreach, Vilz points with pride to recent digitization of an oral history audio archive created by Archivist Emerita Shonnie Finnegan and her staff in the late 1970s. Consisting of 40 taped interviews with UB people from an array of fields and associations, this valuable archive was previously only available to those who could come to 420 Capen and listen to the tape cassettes on old tape players (they originally were recorded reel-to-reel). Now, anyone can listen online to these ethnographic-style interviews that include the voices and reminiscences of such figures as Joseph Manch (1910-1988), a member of the UB Council and longtime Buffalo Public Schools superintendent; Harriet Montague (1905-1997), a UB professor of mathematics at a time when very few women held such a position; and Mischa Schneider (1904-1985), the great cellist whose Budapest String Quartet played the Slee Beethoven Cycle for many years. All 40 interviews are accessible online.
Vilz now wants to replicate the oral history project with interviews of key figures who can “fill in the gaps” among records of certain time periods. “We really want to get at people who are well-known in the university,” she says. “But we also want to interview the lesser-known folks who can offer some insights into working here during a certain period of time, or over a course of time, or speak to their personal experiences,” she says. What’s most desirable, Vilz explains, is to ferret out the individual observations and impressions of key events. “You can read about what the university was like, say, during the campus unrest in the late ’60s and early ’70s. But it’s very different when you hear somebody speak about being there.”
Vilz acknowledges that archival work is increasingly a process of digitization and online presentation. Yet much of the archivist’s art involves the ongoing lessons as orally conveyed from one archivist to another. “Certainly, archival work has changed in the technical ways we do our jobs,” Vilz says. “Previously, I think it was kind of a closed system that scholars and researchers talked about among themselves. Whereas now, we try to be more transparent and put online what we have, either in descriptions or in digitizing images. But in other ways our work hasn’t changed. I think apprenticeship and mentorship are still very important—what you can hand off verbally from archivist to archivist. And those are things that I don’t think will change, even if the manner in which we do our job does change.”