WASHINGTON SPIRIT • Spring 2003  

 

 
CAROLE PRIETTO, University Archivist
Preserving the Treasures
of the Past
 

By Terri McClain

Carole Prietto planned to be a historian. As a student, she took every ancient and medieval history course she could. She wanted to teach history, imparting some of the passion she felt for the subject to students who were as eager to learn as she had been.

Now, instead of teaching history, Prietto preserves it. As the University archivist for the past 13 years, she has studied, nurtured, and helped increase a veritable treasure house of resources.

The Washington University Archives collects and maintains the University's permanent historical record, from 1853 to the present day, as well as a St. Louis history collection. The collections include manuscripts, prints, sound recordings, film, video, artifacts, and microfilm. In 1998, Prietto presided over the University Archives' move from cramped space in Olin Library to larger, climate-controlled facilities in the West Campus Library. More recently, she's been diligently helping the University prepare for its 2003-2004 Sesquicentennial celebration.

The theme of that celebration is "treasuring the past, shaping the future"—sentiments that echo Prietto's own.

"Some people tend to think of Archives as an attic full of memorabilia," she says. "But we're not just a place that collects quaint old stuff. We make information available, and we show you why it's important—not just for the study of the past but also in planning the future. You can't know where you're going until you know where you've been."

A member of the University's Sesquicentennial Commission, Prietto serves a pivotal role on several subcommittees, including those responsible for creating special exhibits, a Sesquicentennial Web site, a video, and a soon-to-be-published pictorial history book.

The most time-intensive project, by far, is the history book. Prietto has worked very closely with author Candace O'Connor for well over a year, researching photographs and digging up background information.

"Anything of this magnitude is not just another project," Prietto says. "Making information about the history of the University available is my job. But the Sesquicentennial gives our archives an extra visibility. The history book will be around for a long time to come. That's something very tangible, and it's satisfying to know that I will have contributed to that."

Some faculty members are using the Sesquicentennial as an opportunity to weave University history into their curriculum. Prietto has been brainstorming with them to come up with topics that students can research through University Archives. In Professor Mary Ann Dzuback's course, History of Women in Higher Education and the Professions, for example, students are using archival materials to research the role of women in the development of Washington University.

"Faculty can and do use the collections in their teaching," Prietto says. "For instance, we have very strong collections in performing arts, so we work with faculty on projects that relate to campus theater. And we've worked with any number of students on their senior theses."

Students researching the civil rights movement and desegregation will have access to a scrapbook from 1948-1949 that documents the activism of a group called SCAN, Student Commission for the Admission of Negroes. (At that time, African Americans were only admitted to the University's graduate divisions.) About 25 pages from the fragile scrapbook have been digitized to be made available on the Web.

"We didn't have the money to do the whole thing," Prietto says. "I would love to get funds for more digitizing. Some of the artifacts are getting too fragile to handle, and I would like to make more of the collections available online. I have a number of competing projects, one of which is digitization of more artifacts in the collections. The other is preservation of our 16mm athletic films. We have football and basketball game films going back to the late 1940s, early '50s, and many of those are showing very obvious signs of rapid deterioration. That is a higher priority for me because those don't have much time left."

The extraordinary amount of research she has done in preparation for the Sesquicentennial has made her a much better resource for faculty and students, Prietto says.

"I've certainly learned an awful lot about our collections. I thought I knew them pretty well. Now I know them very, very well as a result of the Sesquicentennial, in particular as a result of the history book. In my role as photo researcher, I've called upon everything I could conjure up to piece together where to find this or that person. And a lot of fact checking has let me delve into things that I never would have delved into otherwise."

All of which only reinforces the high esteem in which she is held by her colleagues.

"There's such a steep learning curve in Carole's position," says Anne Posega, head of Special Collections at Olin Library. "It takes a lot of time and commitment and love of history to reach the level of knowledge that Carole has, and no one else at the University has that knowledge. There's no one who can fill her shoes."

Terri McClain is a free-lance writer based in St. Charles, Missouri.

PEER REVIEW

"People are always amazed at how much Carole knows. It's as if the University for 150 years was her extended family, and she is the family expert on who did what when, and what really happened. She's an absolutely incredible source of information—in addition to her sense of organization, her knowledge of what we ought to be gathering, how we should be documenting the University, and what is of general interest. Once she knew that the University was planning for the Sesquicentennial, she made a concerted effort to get the archives in really good shape so that she could practically just reach in with her hand and pull out the information that was needed.

—Shirley Baker, Vice Chancellor for Information Technology and Dean of University Libraries


"Carole always has a great deal of enthusiasm for her work, and that's fun to be around. She is obviously a very instrumental person in the whole Sesquicentennial because she has the repository of information that people are using, and her knowledge of the University's history is so intimate and extraordinary that people have been relying on her for a lot of help."

—Mary Ellen Benson, Assistant Vice Chancellor and Executive Director of Publications


"Carole has been an indispensable resource for the University for many years, but she has been especially important during the past year as we planned for our 150th anniversary. She has a wonderful and enlightened sense of history and institutional memory, and she has been generous with her time and expertise for many schools and departments planning Sesquicentennial programs and exhibits. I can't imagine planning this celebration without her."

—Steve Givens, Assistant to the Chancellor and On-Campus Coordinator of the Sesquicentennial Celebration


"Not only does Carole know the University's history and archival collections inside out, but she also has great enthusiasm for her work. All of that makes her a wonderful resource—Washington University is lucky to have her!"

—Candace O'Connor, Author


"I think Carole has been invaluable to a number of departments and planning groups for the Sesquicentennial because she has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Washington University's history and resources. Her contribution is immense. She is the guide to the University's history, and a very knowledgeable one."

—Anne Posega, Head of Special Collections at Olin Library


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