EMU Archives offer resource to help understand school’s history and its influence

By Geoff Larcom / EMU

YPSILANTI – Among the jewels at Eastern Michigan University is a special intellectual realm in Halle Library, the University Archives. It’s a place where researchers “can make sense of the past, the present and future,” says EMU Archivist Alexis Braun Marks.

Formally established in 1970, the mission of the archives is to manage the information resources created by University faculty, staff, students and administrators. To this end, it provides access to the rich history of Eastern Michigan University and all the names it was known by before: Eastern Michigan College, Michigan State Normal College and the Michigan State Normal School.

Braun Marks, who was hired in 2011, spoke recently at an EMU conference focusing on the papers of Mark Jefferson, a former EMU geography professor who drew the maps used by delegates in their negotiations in the Versailles Peace Conference that established a new world order after World War I.

Opening up the collections for research

Among Braun Marks’ first tasks was getting a handle on the various collections and materials EMU possessed, including Jefferson’s voluminous papers, slides and maps – boxes and boxes of material.

The next crucial step was to offer access to such materials so the EMU community could do in-depth and original research on a variety of topics associated with Eastern’s history. There are now more than 550 collections formally described online that are open for research.

The archives offer invaluable research experience for students. For example, for the second year in a row, Braun Marks and the archives have been working with and hosting students in the History 490 senior seminar class taught by professor Mary-Elizabeth Murphy. Students must complete a major research project in the class, using the original materials in the archives. Fourteen students publicly presented their work on Monday, Dec. 9 and Wednesday, Dec. 11 in Room 202 Halle Library.

A student’s fascinating paper on Mark Jefferson

An example of such work comes from EMU alumnus Dustin Elliott, a former student of Murphy’s who spoke at last year’s seminar paper presentations and also at the Mark Jefferson conference, held in Strong Hall this past fall.

Elliott conducted research with the Jefferson papers for his senior seminar paper, entitled, “Forged Among Foreigners: Examining the Early Influences on Mark Jefferson’s Career.”

Elliott noted that Jefferson was fluent in six languages and traveled to Argentina in the 1880s, where he served as an assistant astronomer at the National Observatory in Cordoba.

“Mark Jefferson was one of the more fascinating individuals that I have had the pleasure of learning about …” Elliott told a rapt crowd in the Strong Hall Auditorium. “Pinpointing Jefferson’s experiences around the world was vital in order to observe more deeply his appointment to the commission and his importance at the (Versailles) conference.”

Among Elliott’s observations:

  • “In 1883, 20-year-old Mark Jefferson embarked upon his first voyage to South America with only three years of college under his belt and an incomplete undergraduate degree. He spent the next three years in Cordoba working in the observatory, where he obtained crucial cultural experience that would help to focus the trajectory of his career. He immersed himself in Cordoban society and joined the Cordoban Foreigners Club.”
  • “Due to Jefferson’s time spent in the Foreigners Club as well as the diverse culture around him, he honed certain skills that would prove to be great assets. Between the years 1880 and 1890, Europe was disgorging annually 100,000 emigrants into the Argentine. This transformed the Cordoban area into what some have called ‘a language laboratory.’”
  • “Because of this atmosphere, Jefferson’s linguistic skills improved dramatically, which would greatly benefit him in the future.”

Elliott said it was a joy to be able to utilize the Mark Jefferson papers in such an instrumental way in order to conduct his research.

“The experience I had working with them in the archives here at Eastern will certainly inform the way I conduct research, analyze, and read historical documents moving forward,” he concluded. “I strongly encourage any students to utilize this excellent resource whenever possible.”

For more information, please see the EMU Archives website.

About Eastern Michigan University

Founded in 1849, Eastern is the second oldest public university in Michigan. It currently serves nearly 18,000 students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, specialist, doctoral and certificate degrees in the arts, sciences and professions. In all, more than 300 majors, minors and concentrations are delivered through the University’s Colleges of Arts and Sciences; Business; Education; Engineering and Technology; Health and Human Services; and, its graduate school. EMU is regularly recognized by national publications for its excellence, diversity, and commitment to applied education. For more information about Eastern Michigan University, visit the University’s website.

(Photo by Brynna Bashore)