As the centenary of Mount Saint Mary's University draws near, the crucial role of its archives, located at Chalon, becomes clear. Often an afterthought, archives tend to be out of sight, out of mind until a fact needs to be checked, an event dated or a professor remembered. At those moments, we’re glad someone thought to gather up the papers and photos, organize them and make them findable, no matter how far back in time they’re from.
In a technical sense, archives is about collecting evidence – in the form of documents – against an unpredictable need for validation in the future. This evidence says that we are what we say we are; for example, that the first words of the Mount’s mission statement (“Mount Saint Mary’s University offers a dynamic learning experience in the liberal arts and sciences to a diverse student body…”) are true. We are thankful that the leadership of the last 96 years thought to set aside the precious commodities of space and staff against this moment, when we start the process of capturing our first century of history.
The oldest of the archives reside in huge leather-bound scrapbooks maintained by Sister Agnes Bernard Cavanaugh, CSJ, PhD, professor of history and political science. In them, she pasted pictures, newspaper clippings, booklets, embossed napkins and programs, the occasional telegram from the CSJ Motherhouse in St. Louis and other souvenirs of Mount life. The paper is brittle and the ink faded, and most of the photos have disappeared. But among them a marvelous treasure remains — the 1931 hand-painted Mount Seal from Baker Heraldic of London, and one can see from early news coverage that the Mount’s founding was a very big deal for Los Angeles.
The scrapbooks begin in 1925 and continue until the 1960s. In the early 1970s, Sister Margaret Lynch, CSJ, a retired Latin teacher, was tasked with formally organizing the MSMU archives. She received some professional training and then tackled the masses of archival materials stored all over the Chalon Campus. She transferred papers to acid-free folders and organized them in filing cabinets. The detailed inventories she created make it possible to find thousands of documents today.
The archives today
There are carefully preserved yearbooks (1947-2019), catalogs (1929-2020), newspapers (1945-2021), journals (1932-2019), magazines (1982-2021) and other publications and thousands of pictures (1925-2021) that tell the Mount story from its earliest years. Through a generous donation by Sheila Thornton ’57, a professional librarian, the Mount’s publications were fully digitized in 2011 for access online. To start searching, go to http://stmary2.sdlhost.com. No login is required.
There are also decades of physical documents from student organizations, academic departments, on- and off-campus events and even people, all of which add to the story. These documents range from agendas and minutes to creative writing by some of the CSJ sisters. One gem is a badly faded telegram from CSJ Superior Mother Agnes Rossiter, giving permission for Mother Margaret Mary Brady to start college. But finding history in these primary-source, non-digital materials is typical of old-fashioned archival research and is usually referred to as looking for needles in haystacks. It requires patience, lots of time and a good memory, and it usually rewards a researcher who possesses these qualities with a unique insight or untold story.
The next Mount century
We are, of course, not done writing our history. New issues of publications are added to digital collections, and selected electronic
documents are printed on paper and filed for permanent preservation – paper still being the most reliable, least expensive form for storing documents for a century or longer. But today’s Mount Archives confronts a very 21st-century problem. The student-run newspaper, Athenian Print, exists as a blog. The Mount’s websites from 5 or 10 years ago are no longer accessible.
Perhaps most alarming is the end of the print yearbook, which ceased publication in 2019. It provided a wide window into almost 75 years of student life, but today that history is being written almost entirely in social media. The technology interferes with permanent preservation, so we must rely on the platforms themselves – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – to keep our content for us. We know the 100-year-old black-and-white photo prints and paper flyers will still be here for the next 100 years, but what survives from tomorrow is anyone’s guess.
The digital archives are open to all. The physical archives are available to the Mount community and to those outside the university engaging in academic research. Appointments and a trip to Chalon are required; contact the Archives at (310) 954-4377 for more information and assistance with both digital and paper formats.