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Gathering ‘the best of what has gone before’

By April 8, 2020September 16th, 2023No Comments

By Allison Campbell-Jensen

They stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the curved staircase of the atrium of the Elmer L. Andersen Library — a crowd gathered for the building’s official opening April 8, 2000. One can sense their eagerness in the U of M video that captured that ceremony and related the background of this new home for the U’s Archives and Special Collections.

Gov. Elmer Andersen, then 90, told the crowd that it was “an honor beyond words to have this great structure and what it will mean in service dedicated in my name.” Even though he passed away in 2004, says Kris Kiesling, Director of Archives and Special Collections, Andersen still has an impact on her work.

“There are many times in the course of a year when I think of Gov. Andersen,” she says. “What would he think about what we are doing. Would he be pleased?”

He was an admirable person, Kiesling adds, “coming from nothing, building up a big successful company [H. B. Fuller], his close ties to the U, including chairing the Board of Regents, . . .. He was really a Renaissance man; you don’t see that so much anymore.”

Consolidating collections, cultivating collaborations

Years of planning, design, and construction preceded the opening 20 years ago that brought together in the Elmer L. Andersen Library collections and rare books that were strewn all over the University (and even beyond the main campus). During the two decades since that consolidation, Kiesling says, the individual collections and curators have moved toward collaboration in fruitful ways. In addition, a great many tasks, everything from ordering supplies to archival processing, have been streamlined and coordinated.

So curators now have more time to develop collections, cultivate relationships with friends and donors, and, importantly, to teach and create programming. Exhibits in three locations in the building and gatherings for First Fridays are great examples of events that display the holdings, are supported by Friends of the Libraries, and quite popular with the public.

Yet it is the collections, books, journals, manuscripts, audio and other materials, filling up two caverns, each the size of two football fields, that make this such an asset to the University and our state.

‘What nobler purpose can there be…’

At that April 2000 opening, Andersen said: “What nobler purpose can there be for a University than to gather up the prizes of a culture . . . and make them available so that the best of what has gone before can be preserved and built on?”

The collections are preserved, notes Kiesling, and they are used by everyone from high school students preparing for History Day, to U fo M faculty, graduate students and undergrads, to independent researchers. Gov. Andersen’s legacy lives.

Resolving a 'beyond benign neglect' problem

“Many of the collections began in a single room in a corner of an existing library building. Often the collections were staffed on a part-time basis. As the collections grew, they outstripped their quarters, triggering a series of moves from one location to another for the next twenty-five to thirty years! Many of these moves were described in sketchily written records as “temporary.”

The “temporary” home for the Immigration History Research Center in an old coffee company warehouse lasted for twenty-five years! Housing special collections and archives like these in such poor quarters went beyond benign neglect.

While these quarters had nothing to recommend themselves, many of the university’s special collections, most notably the Children’s Literature Research Collection, the Immigration History Research Center, and the Social Welfare History Archives, have risen to national and even international prominence.”

—“The Elmer L.Andersen Library: Accomplishing the Impossible,” by Donald Kelsey, in Library Trends, Summer 2003, Vol. 52 Issue 1


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