Turning Challenges into Opportunities -- An IHRC Tradition

Haven Hawley, IHRC Program Director

Although I’ve only been on the job since late August, my work as the new IHRC program director has settled into a busy pattern of meetings, research, and friendly faces, highlighted by glimpses of the Mississippi River flowing past Elmer L. Andersen Library. Underneath the banks of that river, in caverns carved out of sandstone and limestone, the collections of the Immigration History Research Center are secure but at capacity. Dealing with the lack of space for expansion is among the most pressing of the challenges – and opportunities – on which staff will be focusing in the coming year. I find inspiration from learning about the origins of the Immigration History Research Center and the work of people like Timothy Smith.

When University of Minnesota faculty began doing research in the Mesabi Iron Range in the 1960s, they found a wealth of materials unknown to and unappreciated by American archival institutions. Ethnic communities possessed photos, documents, publications, and family materials fundamental to telling the story of immigration, but no archives at that time existed focusing on migration. Key figures such as Timothy Smith, Hy Berman, Clarke Chambers, and Rudy Vecoli transformed that challenge into an opportunity through which the University of Minnesota takes part in preserving and interpreting unique materials for future generations.

More than four decades later, that tradition still defines the IHRC. As we face the space limitations of having two caverns under Andersen Library rather than the three initially proposed, the IHRC continues to work toward increasing our available space and ensuring optimal care for the materials entrusted to us. Our initial hope to locate affordable off-site storage with archival conditions has not been realized. Although a third cavern remains a goal, working out the funding and necessary partnerships with a fiscally responsible plan are years away. Like the leaders of the IHRC in the past, we realize the opportunity that lies within this challenge.

The IHRC has been at – and even over – capacity for some time, and we must work to compact the collections in order to make room for future acquisitions. This will require a short-term moratorium on acquisitions, creation of a collections policy to guide the IHRC in communicating with potential donors, and placing an emphasis on processing materials. In upcoming blogs, I will be writing more about each of these issues. Acquisitions and processing always overlap in an archival institution's operations, and it is common for an archives to go through periods where processing must take priority. The IHRC will continue acquisitions after achieving a balance between these two areas.

Acknowledging the limits of the IHRC’s current capacity allows the staff to process collections at hand, produce more detailed finding aids and to increase digital access. We will be able to create space by compacting collections in order to sustain their preservation. Researchers will gain greater access to collections as staff write fuller descriptions and better organize materials.

A recess from acquisition will provide a different kind of space, one that will refresh the relationship of the IHRC to communities, scholars, and our supporters. Staff will better understand how materials across the IHRC’s collections relate to each other, helping us to promote ethnic and migration studies to emerging scholarly trends. Processing materials allows staff members to undertake the research that recovers stories our collections have not yet told.

We will do a much better job of appreciating the uniqueness and shared values of each of the communities and individuals who have entrusted us with their valuable historical materials. Iron Range communities, displaced persons after World War II, and today’s immigrants have so many stories yet to be told through the IHRC’s collections. And there are many more stories that the IHRC must make room for. I hope that you will be a partner with the IHRC as we fulfill our commitment to preserve and to help future generations hear those stories.