BELOIT - Beloit College Archivist Fred Burwell is not a minimalist. As most boomers are downsizing, he treasures well-worn items. As an archivist and general collector, he's learned how old newspaper clippings, photos and diaries tell stories.
"It brings an immediacy to history that textbooks don't," Burwell said.
Although Burwell most often works with students on research projects, the public is invited to the archives located in the lower level of the Morse Library and Richard Black Information Center, 731 College St. Burwell can also refer visitors to a fair number of online collections they can read in the comfort of their home.
When looking for a good read this summer, Burwell encourages people to consider the archives. They feature college history from 1846 to present, city history back to the 1830s and family papers of professors dating back to the 1790s, in addition to special collections, rare books, photos, memorabilia and more.
The archives are ideal for someone who likes fiction and history, interesting characters, events and settings.
The collection has an especially rich amount of resources surrounding the pioneer days of the 1830s and 1840s, settling of the Beloit area, the great migration of African Americans in the 1920s, labor movements and history of large manufacturers such as the Fairbanks Morse and the former Beloit Corporation, as well as war times. A Latino collection also is being launched at the archives.
Unlike traditional text or history books, items such as diaries and letters let those who read them touch and feel the actual documents. Burwell's students find they begin to relate to the person who wrote the pieces.
"They might fall in love with or get angry with the writers. They are walking in their shoes and thinking their thoughts," Burwell said.
Burwell described reading a few diaries which abruptly end, which led him on a search to find out what happened to the characters and how his or her story ended. He recalled a diary of a World War II pilot stationed in China, who describes (in very gritty language) how life changes after he finds out the war is over.
"I researched him and found he died in a plane crash the night of the last entry," Burwell said.
Burwell also recalled reading a fascinating story about an African American Beloit College graduate of 1895, Charles Winter Wood, who was a Shakespearean actor in black theater who later worked for Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial institute. In addition to boxes of information on Winter Wood, the archives bring him to life with a 1925 recording of him reciting a comic poem.
Being an archivist is a natural fit for Burwell. His parents were always bringing their latest goodies home from garage sales and flea markets. Burwell would get tasked with sorting and filing family papers, letters and photographs.
While attending Beloit College, Burwell got a job in the library where he first encountered the archives.
"I walked into this wonderland of ancient materials, piles of photographs, stacks of old Round Tables and the mysterious vault door," he said.
Former archivist and legendary history professor Robert Irrmann took Burwell under his wing to mentor him.
Burwell started working as archivist 32 years ago. He found seemingly mundane items like advertisements, receipts and logos bring a bit of Beloit's past back to life.
The archives add another level of richness to students' studies in the history and English departments. In the latter, classes use the archives for inspiration for creative writing exercises. Students can find a character to inspire a poem or can learn how to transcribe and interpret archaic language.
In a history class, Burwell recalled working with a student transcribing a Civil War-era diary. The writer described war fever in Beloit and mentioned how students used to earn part of their keep at the college by taking care of the buildings.
In addition to students, the archives attract researchers, journalists and authors from all over the world.
Within the archives are editions of the 19th century Beloit Free Press and early Beloit Daily News articles on microfilm. People can search by year, but not topic - something Burwell hopes to one day change.
Burwell is not only an archivist but also an author. He wrote "Prairie Hill," a coming of age novel set in a small Wisconsin town in the 1980s. It is available on Amazon.com as an ebook.
For several years Burwell also wrote a column on Beloit College and Beloit history called "Fridays with Fred" available at https://bit.ly/2LUs98b. He's also working on an new novel, a comic fairy tale.
Burwell's top 10 reading list from the Beloit College Archives includes:
The Nuremberg Chronicle - Original copy of fully illustrated history of the world, published in 1493.
Over 1,000 photographs by Ray K. Metzker, class of 1953, later a distinguished art photographer. Chronicles Beloit College in the early 1950s, including the famous "Bucket Brigade" basketball teams of coach Dolph Stanley.
The 1837-38 "Kelsou Survey," platting a future Beloit, including a "College Street" nearly 10 years before the college's founding.
Early 20th century diaries of Beloiter Laura Aldrich Neese, illustrated with brilliant watercolors.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Collection on Non-Violence, featuring many rare books and pamphlets on King, the Civil Rights Movement, Gandhi and pacifism.
Files and photographs of the 1898 Beloit College baseball team, starring Ginger Beaumont, leadoff batter in the first modern World Series, five years later.
The Negro in Beloit and Madison Wisconsin, 1933 Master's thesis by Velma Bell, first African American student to achieve Phi Beta Kappa at Beloit College.
Documents relating to Beloit's own "Indiana Jones," Roy Chapman Andrews, whose 1923 expedition in Mongolia discovered the first known fossil dinosaur eggs.
Archives concerning Iron City, the controversial 1919 novel by Marion H. Hedges, which skewered both college and city and provoked a local uproar felt for decades.
A collection by and about Jay N. "Ding" Darling, class of 1899, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and leading conservationist. Darling was once suspended for a yearbook drawing of the college faculty and president wearing ballet tutus.