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October 12, 2006

New online archive documents Pitt history

“Not a day that goes by that someone’s not calling for a piece of information from University history,” said Michael J. Dabrishus, assistant University Librarian for Archives and Special Collections.

University Library System (ULS) archivists are accustomed to fielding all kinds of requests — from an Institutional Advancement staff member in search of background on prospective donors to sentimental types seeking photos of Grandpap from his college days.

An online archive, launched this week by ULS, makes it easier for seekers to find snippets of Pitt history, be it an 1893 Chancellor’s report, a yearbook photo from 1907 or Tony Dorsett’s 1973 rushing statistics from an old Pitt athletics media guide.

“This will assist individuals in finding pieces of the University’s history they’ve long been after,” Dabrishus said. “We’re getting these search tools in consumers’ hands directly.”

Over the past year, 70,000 pages have been scanned and catalogued to create the Documenting Pitt archive, available online at

And those who see something they’d like to have can arrange for reproductions through University archivist Marianne Kasica by following the contact information on the site.

A highlight of the collection is its inclusion of every edition of the Owl yearbook from 1907 to 1980, scanned in color. “You couldn’t do justice to them in black and white,” said ULS Digital Research Library coordinator Edward Galloway, who handled the technical aspects of launching the web site.

“They’re a good reflection of what student life was about over 70 years,” Dabrishus added, noting that the well-worn condition of yearbooks on the shelves at Hillman Library is evidence of their popularity. “They’re falling apart at the seams,” he said. And worse, enterprising library thieves are helping themselves to the pages they desire. “Kids are razoring out photos of Grandma,” he added.

Another glimpse into University life in days gone by is in the archive’s collection of University catalogs from 1862 to 1927. The earliest takes a single page to list its eight faculty members and only two to outline the course of study offered to students.

Today’s prospective students who focus on SAT scores and grade point averages might consider the single paragraph of admission requirements from that year in which freshmen were “expected to be well versed in Geography, Arithmetic, two sections of Robinson’s Algebra, seven of Cicero’s Select Orations, the Bucolics, Georgics, and the first six books of Aeneid, Sallust, Greek Reader, three books of Xenophon’s Anabasis; together with Latin and Greek Grammar and Prosody, and the first twelve chapters of Arnold’s Latin Prose Composition.”

Once admitted, freshmen were required to make weekly translations into Latin and sophomores had to translate from Latin as part of their regular academic exercises. Junior-level courses included Tusculan Disputations and Haven’s Mental Philosophy, while the senior year curriculum included Paley’s Evidence of Christianity, Wood’s Botany and Olmsted’s Astronomy.

In choosing the content for the online archive, Dabrishus said a ULS committee aimed for a cross section of information. “We thought about what staff, students, faculty and development people were asking; the kind of things that would serve their purpose but have wider value also.”

In addition to the Owl and University catalogs, the site includes athletics media guides, chancellor’s reports, commencement programs, fact books, copies of the Courant and Pennsylvania Western literary journals and other assorted publications. It also features many Pitt-related photos already catalogued online as part of the Historic Pittsburgh image collection.

The site was designed to be expandable, so new collections can be added, Galloway said, noting that ULS staffers are hoping for feedback from users to shape some of its future direction. New content will be added periodically, Galloway said. New scanning equipment that continues to arrive at ULS makes the job easier. “Putting objects into the pipeline is routine,” he said.

Galloway said attention was paid to increasing the archive’s quality, not merely in scanning, but in the search helps that direct researchers to the information.

ULS staff have created searchable tables of contents for all the archive’s book-like holdings, even for those that initially didn’t have one. And, users will find results for their searches include the context of how that term appears in the archive.

“So, if you’re looking for someone named Smith, you know you’ve got the right Smith,” Galloway said.

Dabrishus said he’s pleased with the site’s user-friendly options. While other schools have online yearbooks and other archival information, “I don’t think I’ve seen any other university’s site that has what we have,” he said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 39 Issue 4

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