Exploring the Archive

For the past nine weeks the Ramonat Scholars have been meeting twice weekly in the second floor seminar room in Piper Hall. This week we decided it was time to discover what was on the other floors.  Director of the Women and Leadership Archives Nancy Freeman very generously offered to show us.

The Women and Leadership Archives was formed in 1994, a few years after Mundelein College affiliated with Loyola University.  It occupies the basement and third hall of Piper Hall, one of the few remaining Gilded Age mansions in this part of Chicago.  Its mission is to collect materials related to women and women’s organizations, which document women’s lives, roles, and contributions. It has a particular focus on activism and women’s issues, education, the environment, Mundelein College, public service, social justice, the art, and women religious.

Our tour began in the basement of Piper Hall where we saw the compact shelving and learned about the different types of restrictions that might be placed on archival collections.  The WLA is more than just paper collections, however.  The Scholars had a chance to look at some of the original furnishing for the Art Deco Mundelein skyscraper such as a pew and a handcrafted chair (left).

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We next went up to the third floor to the main reading room of the Archive.  Nancy shared with us some of fascinating items from the collection, including an early blueprint for the original scheme of Mundelein College.  The Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVMs for short) did not really take a shine to the proposed Colonial Revival structure, so they contracted with an architect to build the Art Deco structure that now graces West Sheridan Road. Garnering even more attention from the students was the Academy Award of actor Mercedes McCambridge, an early graduate of Mundelein College. She won the Best Supporting Actress Award for All the King’s Men in 1949. It came to the WLA with McCambridge’s papers.

Having been oriented to the collections, Nancy then led the students through an exercise to learn how to use a finding aid to uncover materials in a collection.  Working in groups, students had to use a finding aid to locate where an item was filed in that collection. The documents in question ranged from a letter from Cesar Chavez to the grants awarded to Sr. Mary Therese Langerbeck, the first woman to be awarded a PhD in Astrophysics from Georgetown University (1948).  At the end of the session, we reflected on the richness of the collections and the ease or difficulty of the technologies available for navigating them.

Many thanks to Nancy Freeman for the wonderful session and to Susan Ramonat for participating in the class.  No doubt the Scholars will be back to explore the collections more.

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