Making History, Or, How I Spent My Summer Vacation
Okay, all you Sarah Lawrence alumnae/i, renowned for your prodigious ability to write and research: You’re charged with creating an exhibit about the history of Sarah Lawrence, to be called, “Sarah Lawrence College: Past and Present.” Where do you begin? There is no comprehensive book on the subject, and the relevant magazine articles, brochures and essays are mere digests. Your best bet is to go to the College Archives, in the basement of the library, where Archivist Valerie Park MA ’01 will crank the handles of the moveable stacks and drag out box after acid-free box of original letters, reports, newspapers and oral histories for your perusal. Sift through the files, and try not to mar the fragile old papers as you become an expert on your alma mater’s past.
I worked with Valerie and members of the College’s 75th Anniversary History Committee on just this task during the summer of 2003. In eight 4' x 6' panels designed for public display, we were to tell the history of the College, explain its innovative educational style, depict its impact on the community and the culture at large, and straighten out persistent misconceptions (for example, after 35 years, a lot of people still don’t seem aware that SLC is co-ed).
The necessary exhaustiveness of the research made me queasy. “All histories leave things out,” Valerie, an alumna of the College’s Women’s History graduate program—and thus no stranger to meticulous research—replied when I asked why we couldn’t crib from existing histories. “Besides, why repeat what someone else has already said?”
Why indeed. It was much more fun to spend the month of August becoming intimate with the contents of the Archives, then struggling to condense my newfound knowledge into a few pithy sentences. Valerie scoured the photography collection for images from the past, and scanned some 400 photos, of which perhaps a quarter ended up in the exhibit. Meanwhile, the History Committee hired a professional exhibit designer to ensure that the finished exhibit would be so attractive that the public would swoon—or, at least, so that passers-by would feel compelled to take a good look.
After another month of perfecting text and scrutinizing photos, we sent all we had gathered to the exhibit designer; she transformed it into full-blown color panels mounted on foamcore. Finally, we sent the exhibit out into the community: first to the Bronxville Public Library last November, and in March to the Yonkers Public Library. It returns to Sarah Lawrence in April, so even if you don’t frequent Westchester libraries, you won’t miss the exhibit—you can view it in the spring, at Commencement, or during Reunion.
Patti Owen ’51, chair of the History committee and former SLC archivist, predicts that it will be hugely popular. She notes, “Alums like knowing that their time at the College hasn’t been forgotten.” Thanks to the Archives, no one’s time at the College is forgotten—it’s just stored in a file box, waiting for someone to make it into history.
For more information about the Archives, or to make a contribution, visit their Web page or call Valerie Park at (914) 395-2480. The exhibit, “Sarah Lawrence College: Past and Present,” will be on display at the College from April 5 through Reunion (June 4 - 6).