History has a 'new' home at Wilson College

July 29, 2004|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Wanda Finney spends a lot of time sorting through the contents of folders in 75 old filing cabinets.

As archivist for Wilson College on U.S. 11, she is committed to preserving the history of the 135-year-old women's college.

Everything from architectural plans for college buildings to formal student portraits from the 1880s, commencement programs, business records, athletic trophies and newspaper clippings comes under her gaze to be catalogued and properly stored.

Wilson College was incorporated in March 1869; so there are a lot of important records and irreplaceable memorabilia for Finney to preserve. But now she has an efficient "new" building in which to do that - the Hankey Center. The conversion of the building that served as the president's home from 1905 to 2001 provides climate-controlled storage for the accumulation of college history.


The college archives formerly were housed in the cramped basement of Thomson Hall, which "is dry in the winter and humid in the summer," Finney said. "Materials were stored in wooden dressers and map cases. Those are the worst places you can store anything paper."

When Finney was hired as archivist in 1998, her first act was to place the materials in acid-free boxes, she said.

Finney said she deals with the big, overarching concerns.

"Some archivists worry about getting every photo individually enclosed and identified. I'm pleased if I can put a whole bunch in an acid-free folder and know what they are. It will take years to get everything housed, processed and made available."

In the 1990s, retired U.S. Navy Capt. Joan R. Hankey, a member of Wilson's class of 1959, served as a volunteer under C. Elizabeth Boyd, class of 1933, college archivist at that time.

After Boyd retired, Hankey searched for a professional archivist and her parents, Sarah and Donald Hankey, endowed the archives in honor of their daughters, Capt. Hankey and Susan Hankey Cribbs, class of '69. Capt. Hankey provided the additional funding for a full-time archivist.

The 4,000-square-foot Hankey Center houses the C. Elizabeth Boyd '33 archives and the Barron Blewett Hunnicutt Classics Gallery. Ancient objects from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Italy, Greece, Palestine and Syria are displayed in the gallery, which was the living room of the president's house. Artifacts include pottery, glass, lamps, coins, jewelry, household utensils and figurines from the third millennium B.C. to the Byzantine period.

Museum-quality screens throughout the building block 97 percent of UV rays to protect the collections, said Finney, a graduate of Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Va.

Architect Robert Smith of Studio One in Kensington, Md., drew plans that changed which side of the building the entrance is on, tore down part of the house, added new space and built an enclosed porch in the style of the house. The original wood floor and several fireplaces remain.

When someone comes in to do research, Finney interviews him or her to see what material is needed, then goes to the archives and finds it. She stressed that the archives is "not a library. Research in an archive can be slower. But, this material is not available anywhere else."

Her work of going through files and boxes is interrupted when she receives a time-sensitive request from one of the college offices. Some are answered quickly, while others require research into the records to "give accurate and trustworthy information," she said.

A look at the labels on the acid-free boxes reveals that the archives contain alumnae personal papers; scrapbooks; a corset, jacket and skirt worn in 1895 by Mary B. McElwain portraying founder Sarah Wilson; a graduation gown from 1890; business and registrar's office records; a tablecloth owned by Sarah Wilson; photos; slides; audiotapes and videotapes. Alumnae often donate additional materials from their time at Wilson.

On exhibit in the public space at the front of the building are students' photos of life on campus.

"This is the only photographic documentation we have of the dorm rooms, for example," Finney said. Some old photos show students playing tennis in shorts in the snow.

"These are the things we wouldn't have from official college offices," she said, adding that her favorite materials are old photos of the students, buildings and grounds. "Some of the buildings no longer exist, and this is the only record we have of what the college used to look like. These photos are essential for helping to tell the development of the campus over time."

Also on display is one of Finney's favorite pieces, a turquoise ring in the shape of a "W," from the class of 1874. "We have one other ring from that class, but it doesn't have all the studs," she said.

The exhibit space and the enclosed porch are public areas for college events and for hosting the wider community.

"We want to expose the materials we have here, to give people a better understanding of the rich history Wilson has."

The Hankey Center was dedicated in June 2003, and also received the Property Improvement Award in the more than $500,000 category from the Greater Chambersburg Area Chamber of Commerce that year.

Finney said the reaction from alumnae, former presidents, students and trustees to the building's conversion has been "overwhelmingly positive."

Hours are 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. every day except Thursday; and 1 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday; and by appointment.

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