Exploring Moments in Time

By Allison Rial

When I arrived on Augustana College’s campus last year, I had no idea my college contained a “mini museum” within the walls of its library. In fact, I didn’t know anything about Special Collections until I took a short 4-week “Archival Research & Implementation” course taught by Micaela Terronez, our Special Collections Librarian. I was interested in the course because not only was it a history course, but I would get to explore my college’s own history. The class started out by defining what “collections” encompasses, looking at the difference between primary and secondary sources, and learning some key aspects of keeping collections and why they are important. Some terms we learned to understand the archival process included original order, respect des fonds, and provenance. Additionally, our assignments included readings to learn about archives other than our own. They brought the class’s attention to gaps and silences in collected history, privacy and ethical policies when it comes to archives, and opportunities for outreach. We also learned about finding aids and how to navigate the college’s Special Collections database for when we needed to find primary sources.

Women’s basketball team, 1913, Photo C-D00103, Special Collections, Augustana College, Rock Island, Ill.

The first experience I had with archival materials felt like something straight out of National Treasure. I was amazed that I could touch journals, letters, scrapbooks, and photos that were fragile parts of history, something you can only dream of doing in a museum. For example, I held a photograph of the women’s basketball team from 1913. It was interesting to see the players in their very different uniforms than they have now.

As a Multimedia Journalism and Mass Communication (MJMC) and Communication Studies double major, I’ve always had a need and an appreciation for primary sources. Conducting interviews is my typical use of primary sources, and doing so allows me to understand who I’m talking to and to represent their story. After I took the “Archival Research” class, I realized that primary source materials serve that same purpose: capturing a story. Even though I work with primary sources regularly, mostly for my journalism classes or school publication, it wasn’t until I worked with archival materials that I fully considered the variety of primary sources and how they can supplement interviews and communicate information from the past. During “Archival Research,” I was tasked with two assignments to select and examine materials from the collections and then ask questions about them, consider gaps in information, and put them in the context of the world at large during the time period. The midterm asked me to choose an item from the collections and create a short presentation explaining the source’s identifier details, what I found interesting about it, and to also use a secondary source to provide context for it. The final involved creating a public-facing proposal as well as a presentation. Our overarching topic was the history of Black student experiences and topics at the college. For both of my projects, I chose materials that highlighted individual personalities and really gave a snapshot of a specific person or event. 

Even though I work with primary sources regularly, mostly for my journalism classes or school
publication, it wasn’t until I worked with archival materials that I fully considered the variety of primary
sources and how they can supplement interviews and communicate information from the past.

The first material I chose was an 1880 diary by Alice Elizabeth Schall, a resident of Davenport, Iowa. It was interesting to work with handwritten material that completely captures Schall’s life during the year. The cursive, the daily content in the diary, and the pocket-sized diary itself are all elements that added to my understanding of the time period and of Schall as a person. For example, in the entry from Sunday, July 4th, 1880 she talks about picking raspberries, a hard rain that fell (which caused some boys to stop in the barn), noted that her Pa and brother John went for a ride, said someone named C. Tanner called her brother Henry, describes making ice cream, and says that she didn’t attend church or feel very well. A lot of the entries include the weather of the day, her sleep patterns, and how she was feeling, so the diary feels like getting to know her. Primary sources are influential because you can gather information about the unique individual who owned or was connected to that item. This ability to capture a full representation of someone is what journalists strive for, especially when writing human-interest pieces, so I found a connection with my majors within the archive.

Front matter of diary of Alice Elizabeth Schall, 1880, MSS 96, Special Collections, Augustana College, Rock Island, Ill.

Appreciating the little intricacies also makes examining primary sources useful for my majors. When I was interacting with this source, I took notice of the less prominent elements such as the content of the writing, the way she would write about different people or events, and even what format the diary was in so that I could appreciate the source as a whole. This is something I can apply to my journalism and communication focuses. The better I get at noticing the little details, or reading between the lines and noticing the words that go unsaid, the more completely I will understand the people I interact with and put effort into representing.

For my second project, we were working with the college’s materials again while also researching to find outside materials from other archives that could have some kind of connection to the ones in our collections. This process allowed me to understand how archives everywhere can help us piece together the past. For that assignment, I focused on a Black Student Union sit-in that occurred on campus in 1972. The materials included two photographs that showed President Sorensen and Eric Thomas, the President of Black Student Union, in the President’s office during the sit-in. The two photographs I viewed showed an intensity between the individuals, in both the lighting of the image and the facial expressions, which allowed me to interpret what it would have been like to be in the room with them. For most of my work with archival materials, I’ve chosen to focus on photographs. Photographs help me connect to the story and draw my attention. I don’t know the exact profession I want to have with the majors I’ve chosen, but I have always been interested in the way images can capture a story. Especially in the collections, these materials are one of the best ways to determine what a certain person, event, or year was like without being there yourself. I realized how much a good photo can tell a story. This has influenced my studies because while I’m learning how to conduct photojournalism assignments and coming up with visual ideas to accompany my section’s story in the newspaper, I’m thinking about the photos I’ve seen in the collections and how I want a complete story to be represented in a single frame.

For my second project, we were working with the college’s materials again while also researching to find
outside materials from other archives that could have some kind of connection to the ones in our collections.
This process allowed me to understand how archives everywhere can help us piece together the past.

After taking this class, I am still intrigued by Special Collections and what can be learned from them. Now, I’m a student worker in Special Collections, and I get to work with even more materials than I did in the “Archival Research” class. Some of my tasks include transcribing oral histories and manuscript documents, organizing material displays, and showcasing Special Collections materials on the library’s Instagram Stories. One of my favorite Story sets was a collection of move-in day photos from the 1960s. In these photographs you can see the characteristic cars, fashion, and even luggage of that time. It was fun for me to view these photos and put them together and then share them with the campus community by posting them to Instagram on the same day as students were moving in at the beginning of the school year. Most of the Stories I put together show photos from the collections, but some feature pictures of other mediums to show the diversity of the items found here. For example, I created a Story set showing Homecoming pins from years past that was posted during Homecoming week. Between the themed Instagram Stories, requests of patrons, and the materials I reshelve, I consistently come across items I haven’t seen before. It makes my on-campus job exciting and continually shows me how I can use these sources with my majors. Overall, working with primary sources reminds me how valuable storytelling is, and my experiences in the collections will always keep me interested in digging deep into a story and focused on how to encapsulate a moment in time.

Working with primary sources reminds me how valuable storytelling is, and my experiences in the collections will
always keep me interested in digging deep into a story and focused on how to encapsulate a moment in time.


Allison Rial is currently a Sophomore attending Augustana College in Rock Island, IL. She is a double major in Multimedia Journalism and Mass Communication (MJMC) and Communication Studies. Around campus, she works in Special Collections in the library, is the Features Editor for the school newspaper, the Augustana Observer, a member of the Ultimate Frisbee club, and a member of the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega (ΑΦΩ).