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UBNow to explore UB Then

Archivists from the UB Archives.

University Archives staff members (from left) Jessica Hollister, Lynn Lasota, Hope Dunbar, Grace Trimper, Sarah Cogley, Marie Elia and William Offhaus pose for a photo. The archives collects, organizes, houses and maintains historically valuable records and other items covering UB’s 177- year history. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published August 30, 2023

Hope Dunbar, university archivist, University at Buffalo Libraries.
“The fact that we have material that spans the entire history of the university shows that people have always understood that historical material was important and worth saving. ”
Hope Dunbar, university archivist

Emily Webster began her nearly 50-year career at UB shortly after receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1923. She would become the first woman in the country to achieve the rank of assistant vice president for business affairs at a major university.

She was also a meticulous record keeper.

And Webster was not the only UB administrator of her generation to understand the importance of preserving physical materials.

Webster, along with Dorothy Hass, director of student activities; Emma Deters, university registrar; and Ruth Bartholomew, head librarian, are responsible for collecting and later donating UB’s first collections of periodicals, documents and ephemera to the University Archives.

Located on the fourth floor of Capen Hall, University Archives collects, organizes, houses and maintains historically valuable records and other items covering the university’s 177- year history. It is one of four units within University Libraries’ Special Collections, which also includes The Poetry Collection, Rare & Special Books and the Robert L. Brown History of Medicine Collection.

Today, the initial donations from Webster and other “proto archivists” have grown considerably. If the manuscript boxes were laid end-to-end, they would cover more than two miles, stretching from the Governors Complex to UB Stadium and back.

What’s in those boxes?

This introduction to the archives is the first step in a journey that will answer that question with recurring stories pulled from the archives in an occasional feature UBNow calls “UB Then.”

Maybe it’s the story of UB’s connection to Abraham Lincoln or a Hollywood starlet.

Or how a giant bubble was once the popular place to be on campus.

Or how UB put the blue in True Blue.

Or maybe, it’s a photo or two — commencements, concerts, the first day of classes — reminding us about the UB of old.

Given the scope of the holdings, we hope this glimpse into the archives encourages personal explorations that connect people to the university’s history in ways that strengthen pride, build identity, and provide new ways of interpreting the present by examining evidence from the university’s past.

It also serves as a good reminder of the importance of University Archives in capturing UB’s history and growth from a small medical school in 1846 to a large, comprehensive university.

“Clifford C. Furnas established the University Archives in 1964,” says William Offhaus, UB reference archivist. “UB was experiencing dramatic change at the time, having recently merged with the State University of New York in 1962.

“Furnas felt the need to ensure the preservation of the university’s history.”

But others within the university, just as Webster and her contemporaries had done, were involved with informal archival efforts prior to 1964, according to Hope Dunbar, university archivist.

“Departments knew that their records were important and worth capturing, but there wasn’t a unified entity to collect and preserve them, like University Archives, with funding, resources and specialized staff,” says Dunbar. “The fact that we have material that spans the entire history of the university shows that people have always understood that historical material was important and worth saving.”

Ruth Simmons was the first university archivist, serving in that capacity from 1964-67. Marchand “Shonnie” Finnegan,” who coined the “proto archivist” reference to Webster and others, succeeded Simmons in 1967.

Over the next 30 years, Finnegan expanded University Archives’ collections beyond the administrative records of the university by searching for and saving materials related to student life and other university ephemera.

“Shonnie was well known for exploring the campus and gathering student periodicals, flyers, posters and, in one instance, a teargas canister that was fired on student protesters in the spring of 1970,” says Offhaus. “She also began collecting non-university records in the areas of local women’s history, architecture and design, civil rights and social justice.

“That included collections related to Darwin D. Martin, Frank Lloyd Wright, the desegregation of the Buffalo Public Schools and Love Canal — all of which are part of University Archives collections.”

It can be messy work.

Libraries traditionally house material created and bound by an institution or publisher that circulates for the benefit of a community, school or other organization. Archival materials, on the other hand, are the unbound papers and records created in the business cycle of a family, organization or group.

Archivists are professionals trained in specialized practices and procedures that organize that primary source material in ways that make it accessible.

“It drives me bonkers when I read a treasure was ‘discovered’ in the archives or an item was ‘lost’ and later ‘found’ in the archives,” says Dunbar. “Unprocessed collections are traditionally not made available to researchers, so whatever item was the subject of those stories was located because archivists processed or re-processed a collection to make that access and discovery possible.”

Dunbar calls it “the hidden work of archivists.”

“The reason these items are ‘discovered’ is because someone made it possible for them to be discovered,” she says. “If it’s not accessible and organized, it’s almost as if the item doesn’t exist.”

And the material can come from a variety of sources. It’s not just researchers and faculty donating to the University Archives, but people in possession of personal collections. The University Archives holds over 250 manuscript collections related to various research areas outside of the formal institutional records of the university, with strong holdings in environmental issues, social activism, design and architecture, women’s history and African American collections.

“If you have something that is unique, historical and culturally significant to the development of the university or Western New York over time, then we would like to have a conversation,” says Dunbar. “Even if the material doesn’t fall within the scope of our mission, we make an effort to direct people to another institution that might be a better fit.”

In the end, it’s about connecting people and information, says Jessica Hollister, a visiting assistant librarian for University Libraries.

“Democratic societies require open access to information,” she says. “Archives work hard to make historical information publicly available.”

University Archives, located in 420 Capen Hall, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. The public can visit the exhibitions or access the collections. Appointments are not necessary, but highly recommended for researchers, as some material is stored off-site. Reference archivists can be reached at

“We encourage you to come visit us,” Dunbar says.