Preserving University History
In the early '70s following service in the U.S. Army Reserve, Edward L. Galvin volunteered to help the historical society in his hometown of Winchester, Massachusetts, vacuum a collection of books that had been stored in an attic. "I kept looking at all the books and thinking, ‘You have to get this organized,'" says the University archivist and director of Archives and Records Management. He soon joined the society's board and, when the town established an archival center as part of its bicentennial celebration, became the first archivist. During that time, he also worked as a genealogist for the New England Historic Genealogical Society.
Galvin has been amassing information, preserving records, and digging through archives ever since. As University Archives marked its 50th anniversary in 2009, Galvin achieved a career milestone of his own: He was recognized as a 2009 Fellow of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) for outstanding contributions to the profession. Before arriving at SU in 1995, he managed archives at two engineering firms—MITRE Corp. in Massachusetts and Aerospace Corp. in California—and oversaw the local government records program for the New York State Archives and Records Management Administration in Albany. "I can still name most of the 62 counties," says Galvin, a certified archivist who holds a master's degree in historical agencies and administration from Northeastern University.
From their sixth-floor offices in Bird Library, Galvin and his four-member staff provide a vast array of services. They ensure that University legal documents and other records are properly stored, readily accessible, and disposed of at the appropriate time. They build and maintain a collection featuring nearly everything connected to SU, create exhibitions, manage an ever-growing web site (archives.syr.edu), and field all sorts of queries-substantive, trivial, and otherwise. Amid all that, they must keep pace with the rapid changes in technology that pose new storage and preservation issues. "We support members of the University community-people working on campus, students, alumni, and the general public-in whatever their needs are involving the history of the University," he says.
Case in point: When filmmakers of The Express, the movie about Orange football legend Ernie Davis '62, needed information to give the film an authentic look, they turned to Archives. Among Galvin's favorite holdings in Archives are the historical photos (an estimated 750,000 images); the papers of George Fisk Comfort, the first dean of the fine arts school, which include family history dating back to the 1700s; and a series of letters written by Henry Dickinson of the Class of 1882. "I took it upon myself as a fun project to transcribe all the letters," says Galvin, who also researched faculty and others mentioned by Dickinson to add context to the letters.
The collection closest to his heart is the Pan Am Flight 103 Archives, which includes items donated by families of the 270 people lost in the 1988 terrorist bombing, as well as other materials and records. Galvin has come to know many of the families and is leading a $2 million fund-raising effort to create and endow an archivist position for the collection, which continues to grow. In addition, he regularly gives talks about the collection and is working closely with archivists at other universities that have experienced tragedies to create a special SAA publication. "It's an incredibly personal collection," he says. "For us, it's a way to memorialize the victims, commemorate what they did, and make sure that people don't forget these lives."
Galvin attributes his interest in preserving history to his own longtime genealogical searches for information on his ancestors, whose roots are in Ireland. In his office, amid books, files, and photos of his wife, Beth, their three children, Amanda '08, Hilary '10, and Zac '13, and beloved basset hound Salamanca ("Sallie," for short), Galvin has a bumper sticker that reads: "Archivists Make It Last Longer." And in this era of so much fleeting information, they must be vigilant in saving content for the long haul. "We face issues of preservation all the time," he says. "How do we preserve something and make it available to people for years to come?" —Jay Cox