The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus


SMU archivist stands the test of time

A thick layer of dust covers the box Joan Gosnell just dropped on her desk. The box lands with a loud “thump” releasing a cloud of dust as it falls.

Gosnell opens the box and sees a stack of messy papers, old desk trinkets and even a couple of vintage fountain pens inside. For some, this may seem like a mundane find for Gosnell, it’s just another Monday.

As Southern Methodist University’s sole archivist, Joan Gosnell’s working life revolves around the past.

Gosnell is in charge of cataloging anything and everything. From old sweaters to important minutes, Gosnell occupies the fourth floor of the Fondren Library building with the university’s entire 100-year history at her fingertips.

“I’ve always liked working with University archives,” Gosnell said.

“There is something about the size and familiarity of the content that really speaks to me.”

Gosnell, a native of Queens, N.Y., started her relationship with archiving while in college at Juniata College in Huntingdon, PA.

“Junior year, my friend Nancy and I decided we wanted to do internships in Washington D.C.,” Gosnell said.

“I decided I wanted to do an internship in history because I was convinced I couldn’t get an actual job in history.”

Gosnell spent her summer working for the National Archives. It was there that Gosnell decided she wanted to make a living as an archivist.

Upon getting her master’s in history at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, V.A.

Gosnell’s first archivist job was at the American Irish Historical Society. From there, Gosnell gained a job as a corporate archivist at J.C. Penney. It was through that department store’s archive that Gosnell landed the job at SMU.

“I left J.C. Penney to try to be a corporate librarian,” Gosnell said. “I discovered that I didn’t like working with the present.”

When J.C. Penney’s archive was transferred to SMU for preservation, Gosnell assisted in the process. At the same time, SMU was looking for an archivist to make preparations for the university’s upcoming centennial celebration.

“I was at the right place at the right time,” Gosnell said.

In 2005, Gosnell started working with the archive at SMU. However, the archive she inherited was not in particularly good shape.

“The archive had good bones,” Gosnell said. “The structure was there, it had just been neglected for quite some time before I got a hold of it.”

To fix the archive, Gosnell needed to make space. That meant bringing in bushels of boxes and an array of shelving units to bring order to more than 400 collections that the SMU archives houses.

SMU accounting graduate Spencer Eggers, utilized the university archives for a project in 2008.

“When I arrived at DeGoyler, I really had no idea what to look for. There was no online catalog [then], so it was hard to tell what information might be available to me as a student,” Eggers said. “I told Joan what I was looking for, specified a time period and I sat down at one of the tables while she went through the archives to pull whatever there was that could help with me search.”

Gosnell fills almost 125 queries a year from alumni, SMU’s own employees and other media requests that deal with the archive. As the digital age looms over Gosnell’s shoulder, the archivist claims that her field is changing rapidly.

“It’s harder to document everything students do now,” Gosnell said. “With Facebook, yearbooks and school newspapers are dying.”

While the digital transition for Gosnell may be the slow, the archivist is working on ways to make SMU’s archives more accessible to the technological savvy world.

With grant money, Gosnell was able to put old editions of SMU’s Rotunda on the Web as well as issues of the student newspaper dating back to 1915. Besides the two publications, Gosnell also created a searchable database of antique photos and document scans for some of the University’s oldest documents.

One of Gosnell’s most recent projects was working with SMU’s newest addition, Centennial Hall. Located on the bottom floor of the Hughes-Trigg Student Center, Centennial Hall serves as an interactive history lesson documenting the university through its century-long history.

While some may misconstrue Gosnell’s job as repetitive and boring, Gosnell claims the contrary.

“There hasn’t been a day where I haven’t learned something new about SMU,” Gosnell said. “In terms of jobs, I’m one of the lucky ones.”

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