Two Illinois students scribbled secret notes, their love blossoming on the back of dance cards in the middle of the Great Depression.
A father’s worry can be heard between the lines of more than 400 letters to his son Jim, an Illinois student who served overseas during World War II.
For nearly 150 years Illinois students have witnessed love and loss, romance and war. And even after they graduate, their stories remain in football jerseys, track shoes, picket signs, metal megaphones and even stuffed animals – all of which can be found at university archives.
The Student Life and Culture Archives preserves and protects those student experiences captured in scrapbooks, letters, videos, photos and oral histories as far back as the mid-1800s.
If you only have the official records of the university, Associate Professor of Library Administration and Archivist Ellen Swain said, then you’ll miss a whole aspect of life at Illinois.
Swain even waited in line in early February for the 2005 Fighting Illini men’s basketball team bobbleheads for the artifact collection (she managed to get the whole series.)
“You have to have the student life perspective to have the whole perspective of the university,” Swain, adding that students use the archives as primary sources for class assignments, said. “The university exists to educate students, so their stories are really important in telling that history.”
Located at the Archives Research Center in the historic Horticulture Field Laboratory, the Student Life and Culture Archives is the home of a massive collection of alumni and national artifacts of the college student experience. Founded in 1989 through the generous endowment of the Stewart S. Howe Foundation (which includes files on student life at more than 300 American colleges and universities), the Archives is also the home of the National Panhellenic Conference Archives, Swain said, as well as multicultural fraternity and sorority conference collections.
Senior Leanna Barcelona, a history and political science major and student archives assistant, said some of the first artifacts she ever processed for the Student Life and Culture Archives were a sweater and football as part of a collection from Arthur R. Hall, the first full-time Illinois football coach.
Her dad, an Illini fan, loved hearing about that, she said.
Since then Barcelona’s processed a large acquisition from the campus Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) Resource Center – materials which even included picket signs and posters from past protests – as well as items from her own sorority, Chi Omega.
Barcelona said it’s fascinating to see how things have changed on campus compared to seeing places in person, like her sorority house, and in photos from even 100 years ago.
“When you start going through people’s personal papers, it starts to feel like you know them,” she said.
Like with the James W. Snively collection, which includes 400 letters that Illinois alumnus (Law ’60) Bill and Julie Snively of Rockford, Illinois, donated to the university in October 2014.
The collection includes letters and postcards from Bill’s older brother Jim, before and during World War II to their father and alumnus John Snively, LAS ’21 and Law ’23. Jim enrolled at Illinois 1942 and then enlisted, Bill said. Bill’s mother, Mable Ruth Holland Snively, was also an Illinois graduate.
Bill said his brother, still studying at the university, asked his father what he should do about enlisting. Jim thought he should go into the Army Air Corps, and their father had strong opinions about what Jim should do, Bill said.
John wrote to his son every day while James was serving in the military. The collection also includes a letter from a young “Billy” to his brother Jim:
“As you probably know we are invading the Philippines,” Bill writes. “David is playing on the sophomores [sic] team against East High this Friday. It is also the Illinois Homecoming and they are playing Notre Dame Saturday. I hope you are all right.”
“The centerpiece of the collection are the 400 or so letters John sent his son Jim after he was inducted into the service,” Julie said. “I wonder what [Jim’s father John] felt when Jim was in the war, and Jim was in such danger. I imagine it was hard for the parents to deal with.”
Jim Snively was captured on Oct. 11, 1944. His parents finally learned he was safe through a letter sent by an English couple, according to the Snivelys. In the letter, the English couple wrote they had heard a message from a “James Snively, Rockford” on a German broadcast around Christmastime. That letter is also a part of the Snively collection donated to the Student Life and Culture Archives, university archivists said.
According to Bill, his brother struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following the war. He said he hopes that his brother’s letters and documents can serve as a historical record for any researchers studying war’s effects on veterans.
“The university and the library has a reputation for being world-renowned,” Bill said of why he chose to donate his brother’s letters to Illinois. “It’s an obvious place to me.”
“We hope it’ll be used and I think there is great value in it for historical purposes,” Julie added.
Julie Snively, like several who chose to donate to university archives, wrote a letter of introduction to give the World War II letters context for researchers and students.
“It’s really nice to have the donor write a letter for context, having said that, we get material from children (of alumni) all the time,” Swain said. “But that context just really puts it all together for you.”
Not all the stories in the Archives are as heart-wrenching as sending students off to war, but they can be just as moving.
Kathrine Switzer, daughter of Illinois alumni Virginia Miller and W. Homer Switzer, also wrote a letter to introduce her parents’ dance cards collection from ’29-36, which chronicles the budding relationship of two Illinois undergraduates.
Dance cards were small booklets which allowed women to record their dance partners for the evening, according to a Valentine’s Day blog post on the Student Life and Culture Archives’ website. The cards often came attached with a cord that allowed women – like excellent dancer Virginia Miller -- to wear them around their wrists.
Miller often wrote short love letters to Switzer in the back of some of the dance cards, like this one from the Officers’ Ball:
I’ll look back in years to come on this dance tonight and we will share our memories together. I live for you each hour and love you devotedly – as I will always and always. –
Miller and Switzer married five years later, in 1940.
Switzer said she called the university library and asked about donating materials that could be good for the university’s special collections, which got her in touch with archivist Ellen Swain. Switzer sent Swain a few photographs of the dance cards by email, and Switzer said it was incredibly gratifying to see a university understand the historical importance of the dance cards.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled because [the dance cards] not only found a home, they found an academic purpose,” Kathrine Switzer said, adding she has also donated papers and artifacts from her athletic achievements at her alma mater, Syracuse University.
Switzer explained that her mother worked at the library part-time while a student at Illinois. Switzer’s father often teased that if he hadn’t married Miller, “she’d still be in the library.”
“I can’t imagine a better repository [than the Student Life and Culture Archives] for her relationship and some of the things that made her happiest,” Switzer said.
Barcelona said as a current Illinois student, she sees a future for archives even as records move from physical to digital spaces. Campus student organizations can choose to include the Student Life and Culture Archives on their email lists so the Archives can print and preserve their records, she said.
According to Swain, students can send electronic files to the Student Life and Culture Archives through a Box account; she’s currently working with campus student government to transfer their electronic records directly to Archives.
Barcelona said she might donate some of her sorority materials to the university eventually, when she’s a little older.
Hardly anyone is famous – although there are a few Roger Eberts and Scotty Restons, Swain said. The bulk of the rich and invaluable collections they hold are donated by “regular” students and alumni who saved material, she said. The Student Life and Culture Archives maintains a student’s expense books from the Great Depression era, as well as photos of a Class of 1938 student with his African-American fraternity brothers in Kappa Alpha Psi.
“Learn your history,” Barcelona said, “because we’re making history now as students.”
For more information about how to donate papers or other artifacts to the Student Life and Culture Archives, email Ellen Swain at email@example.com.
The Student Life and Culture Archives also updates its blog regularly with photos and historical details about the numerous items in its collections, and highlights archives on its Tumblr and Facebook pages.