Timothy Sullivan, the 25th president of William & Mary was fond of saying, "Down through history, every great university had a library that matched its greatness."
Then, he and Nancy Marshall, dean of university libraries at William & Mary, set out to uphold this tradition. They adapted the Earl Gregg Swem Library to the technological age, plugging it into the information superhighway while preserving the wealth of printed material.
Today, the Swem contains more than one million books, a million microform pieces, more than half a million government documents, more than one million manuscript and maps and a wealth of tapes, recordings, films and slides.
The Princeton Review rated the W&M library system as the eighth best in the United States.
Although the Swem's Special Collections Research Center is eager to preserve material that reflects on history, it is just as interested in documenting current events.
"We are always looking to acquire letters, diaries, photographs, business and organization records, fliers, posters, oral histories, newsletters and brochures, among other items," said Jay Gaidmore, the Marian and Alan McLeod director of the Special Collections Research Center at Swem Library in an interview with the Lake Placid News and the Virginia Gazette. "And not just in paper form. We are interested in digital files as well, such as email, PDFs, digital photos and videos, etc. Regardless of the time period, we want to document all segments of society from the famous to the common person."
He pointed out that the Swem is making a greater effort to reach out to the African American and Latin communities in the greater Williamsburg area to better document the history of these communities, both past and present, and diversify the special collections holdings.
"Both of these communities are vastly under-documented, and we want to remedy this before it's too late," he said. "We are also interested in acquiring more veterans' papers and not just those from previous wars but also the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. With digital cameras, there is an amazing amount of photographs and video out there to preserve. We are hoping to get a lot of support for this effort since this area has a large military and veteran presence."
He noted that the coming arrival of the papers of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates may inspire many former diplomats and others involved with international relations, foreign policy, intelligence and military affairs to donate their papers to the Swem Library.
"There are a lot of W&M alumni who have followed these career paths, and we want to document their careers and stories," Gaidmore said.
There is also another field where the special collections programs are flourishing. Under the direction of Jennie Davy, in addition to the Doris Baker exhibit of Cold War era photographs, currently there is an exhibit of selected works of Gaylord Shanilec, a book artist. As part of the "Fight to Rights" exhibit series, an exhibit on paperwork created during the Civil War was installed.
The Swem will soon be renovating the area that houses Media Services, which provides instruction, software, and equipment necessary to help budding filmmakers do their work, including conducting video and audio oral histories. The library is also implementing an online publishing platform so digital publications and research is preserved and made freely accessible.
Just as the College of William & Mary adapted the methods of collecting and preserving material reflecting on current local history, it would also be desirable if North Country Community College and Paul Smiths College would do the same.
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.