From the Editor: Archivists to the Rescue

Masquerader-Feb_1950A few weeks ago I received a telephone call from Frank Beck, BA’81, with an odd request: Could I help him find a photograph of his mother’s legs?

It seemed that back when his mother, Jane Padgett Beck, BA’51, was a Vanderbilt sophomore or junior—Frank wasn’t sure which—a photograph involving her legs had wound up on the cover of The Masquerader, a long-extinct student humor magazine. Jane had treasured the issue for many years before she somehow lost it, and Frank wanted to know if we could provide his mother with another copy.

I took down his information and promised Frank I’d see what I could find out.

Reader, I confess: I set it aside for another day. Frank called back. Twice, leaving two phone numbers. He sounded like a nice man. And Mother’s Day was just around the corner.

I felt a little ashamed of myself as I excavated my scribbled note from a stack of other universities’ magazines and overripe bananas. Then I did what I should have done in the first place and called Vanderbilt’s Special Collections and University Archives. I figured they would tell me they didn’t keep 60-year-old copies of The Masquerader and I could report back to Frank and close the books on this one.

“We have most issues of The Masquerader, but we’re missing a couple of them,” archivist Teresa Gray told me cheerfully, not missing a beat. She offered to call Frank herself and arrange to provide him with a copy. Talk about service.

As I proof this issue, I’ve been thinking about how much we rely on the folks in Special Collections and University Archives as a resource. They provide many images we use in our “Collective Memory” section. Old photos find their way into our feature articles and other parts of the magazine, too—the photos of the Commodore statue in this issue are examples.

Their staffers treat our requests as an interesting challenge, not a chore. And we editors feel like we’re stepping into another, more civilized world when we visit Photo Archives, where you sit at a table while they bring you stacks of old photos, which you look through daintily while wearing white cotton gloves.

Back when most of our publications’ photos were maintained in the form of slides or prints, we more than once sent the archivists old files of stuff we no longer wanted. Some were neatly labeled and organized; others were about as easy to decipher as the Rosetta Stone. Regardless, the archivists treated them like treasures—parts of Vanderbilt history that otherwise might be lost.

As an epilogue, Frank called me one more time to thank me for helping him secure a copy of the Masquerader cover. Then Jane got on the phone—both live in Atlanta—and thanked me, too. Sometimes it’s the little things.

There ought to be a national holiday honoring the people who keep stuff the rest of us discard and then retrieve it for us when we realize we really did need it. If you know an archivist, give him/her a hug. Provided you’re wearing something clean, dry and acid-free, of course.

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