Got an Archival Question? For Nearly 17 Years It Was “Ask Catherine.”

By Marcia Faye

You know you’ve met a born archivist when you ask her to pick one time in history she would have liked to live based on the richness of its archival materials and she can give you not only the year but a specific date.

Catherine Bruck
Catherine Bruck
Scott Benbrook

“I would like to re-live January 5, 2006,” says Catherine Bruck, who retired from her role as IIT university archivist on February 28. “If I had known that the next day Pilgrim Baptist Church [Bronzeville Chicago Historic Landmark] would be lost to a fire, I would have wanted to remove the church membership records and original unpublished Thomas A. Dorsey gospel music scores that were stored in its basement.”

It was actually a variety of 1930s source materials created by United States Works Progress Administration employees that served as steppingstones to Bruck’s more than 30-year career in the archival field. Her fascination with the WPA items as an American studies undergraduate led her to a master’s degree in museum science and jobs in local history museums in Illinois, where she was also responsible for both artifact and manuscript collections. Bruck’s discovery that her real passion was in working with historical documents clinched her shift from curating to archiving. She was hired as IIT university archivist in 1998 after being employed for five years as part-time archivist for North Central College.

Watch an IIT Magazine Video Extra with University Archivist Ralph Pugh to learn more about this historic figure.

So what exactly is an archivist? Bruck answers that question and others in this IIT Magazine retrospective interview. Now members of the IIT community will need to “Ask Ralph [Pugh],” who came on board to assist Bruck in 2006 and who now succeeds her as university archivist.

So what exactly is an archivist?

That’s a tough question. Let’s see. An archivist is someone who evaluates documents, which can be in any physical or electronic format, to determine if they will have historical or evidentiary value in the future, and if so, then catalogues and stores them in such a manner that they will survive and be findable when needed.

As university archivist I hope I have created a conduit that connects our researchers, on campus and across the world, with the cache of primary materials we hold in IIT Archives, and that I have supplied tools that can be used to comprehend and evaluate documents.

Was there a particular archival challenge or interest that drew you to apply to IIT?

IIT Loyalty Song
A vintage copy of the handwritten music score “IIT Loyalty Song,” IIT’s original alma mater, by O. Gordon Erickson

I was drawn to being able to build IIT Archives from the ground up. There had been a couple prior activities to collect and organize some of Illinois Tech’s historical materials, but it was [former] President Lew Collens who created the position of university archivist as a permanent staff position in Galvin Library. So when I arrived, my first couple of years involved locating archival items and establishing the process of creating a permanent archives. If I had been more familiar with the history of IIT, I would also have been thrilled with getting to work with such a significant body of primary materials but then I might also have been too intimidated by it to take on the responsibility.

What is the size of IIT’s archival collection?

There are about 4,000 linear feet of materials in IIT Archives (the amount of shelf space required to hold all the materials). There are more than 1,000 catalogued collections, which range in volume from one piece of paper or one cassette tape to a 448-box collection. Regrettably, there are more than 1,000 linear feet of materials yet to be processed—meaning we don’t know what is in those boxes, and they are not available to help us answer questions researchers may ask. Another metric commonly tracked at IIT Archives is the number of researchers helped: In FY 2013, the most recent year for which we have statistics, IIT Archives handled 340 research requests.

IIT-published brochures
IIT-published brochures 2
Two collections of IIT-published brochures, both visually attractive but whose primary importance is comprehensive documentation of fundraising programs in the 1940s and 1960s

What methods are used to preserve archival materials at IIT?

Beginning with the most basic methods, we store our collections in containers that meet archival standards in clean, dry, and secure space. Our HVAC conditions could be better, but our collections are not in immediate jeopardy. We have digitized some items on a case-by-case basis; in addition to the possibility of posting the digital versions on the Internet so they can be used remotely, the digital copy also serves as a preservation copy in case the original is lost. At the other end of the preservation spectrum, a couple years ago we sent a 1937 Institute of Design scrapbook, believed to have been made by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, to a professional conservation laboratory where it was cleaned, stabilized, and digitized. The high-quality digital surrogates of each page of the book have become the “use copies”, meaning the fragile original book won’t suffer further wear and tear.

What was your greatest accomplishment as university archivist?

I think my greatest accomplishment was rescuing Lewis Institute from oblivion. As one of IIT’s two heritage schools, Lewis’s rich and voluminous history had been effectively eclipsed for at least two decades by Armour Institute’s more frequently told story. Illinois Tech’s Board of Trustees formally recognized the contributions of Lewis Institute to our university history by naming our newest school the Lewis College of Human Sciences.

What are your post-IIT plans?

After nearly 17 years of commuting into the city, I plan to spend retirement holed up at home in Naperville, Ill. I will resume some activities I gave up because of the daily commute, and I hope to practice some new skills to keep mind and body strong. For travel, I’d like to visit every National Park Service site in the country, but those are likely to be virtual visits via DVDs from the comfort of my living room.

More of Bruck’s favorite IIT collections:

  • The papers of Henry T. Heald, Armour Institute’s last president and IIT’s first president. Awaiting detailed cataloguing, this worthy collection holds untold secrets about Illinois Tech’s formative years and the contribution of Heald to the university, Chicago, World War II, and ROTC history (1998.049).
  • Films (unviewed until the can be digitized) with such intriguing titles as The Concrete Canoe (1990.002) and So Much Light, So Much Mystery (1998.082).
  • Certificates of membership transfers from Plymouth Congregational Church to Armour Mission dated 1891 and 1892 (1989.006).
  • A 1974 audio recording of Sibyl Moholy-Nagy’s Institute of Design students reading original Dadaist poetry they composed as a class project (1999.037).
  • A 1958 audio recording of inventor Lee de Forest talking to ham radio operators on his 85th birthday (2001.004).
Class Ring
A class ring designed by Lois Bey (ChE ’50), who wanted one with a more feminine look