Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Archivist to retire at end of the month

Walk back to a far enough corner in Deering Library, the University Library’s quaint and musty older sibling, and you’ll find a living history of Northwestern held in 15 rooms, 25,000 cubic feet of filed records and the institutional secrets of more than 150 years of history.

And back in one of the rooms that house the university’s archives, which extend into the basement of Fisk Hall and a makeshift closet in a closed Deering men’s bathroom, there’s a man who built it all.

To listen to University Archivist Patrick M. Quinn tell 150 years of NU’s stories – from the beginning of purple and white to the life of famed anthropology researcher and Program of African Studies founder Melville Herskovits – is to tap into NU’s own personal Wikipedia, animated by a ruddy-faced, gray-haired man who has seen and heard it all.

He’s retiring at the end of this month after 34 years of cultivating the school’s history in official and personal documents, yearbooks, newspaper clippings and academic files.

“I know a lot of dirty linen about the university, yes I do,” Quinn said, grinning. “But I can’t tell you any of it.”

As the go-to guy for the archival profession in the Chicago area, he’s taught in library science programs at Loyola and Dominican universities, and in a now-extinct library education program at NU. His dedicated staff of three full-time archivists consists of old pupils and old customers: Associate Archivist Kevin Leonard wandered into the archives in 1976 as an undergraduate history major. He requested information on a research project about Harris Hall, and was later offered a student position. He’s been working alongside Quinn ever since. Leonard will act as head archivist when Quinn departs on May 30 and said he might apply for Quinn’s position if NU posts the opening.

“It will be sad to have him leave,” Leonard said. “I’ve learned everything from him.”

When Quinn came to NU in 1974, the archives were two filing cabinets’ worth of records. Today, the archives are the meat that serves requests from academics, researchers, journalists and alumni from around the world.

“We like to think we have a darn good collection for a university this size and age, but we really weren’t in the business of collecting important materials until (Quinn) got here,” Leonard said. “It’s not just official papers … we document student life, the pedagogy, the curriculum.”

Building the collection often took some cunning in Quinn’s early years. Quinn recalled a time in his second year at NU when he used a vacation to track down the papers of Abram W. Harris, NU’s president from 1906 to 1916, in the walls of an attic in Maine. The 30 pounds of papers hauled back to NU in Quinn’s 1988 Chevrolet Caprice became the start of a collection on NU’s presidents. They were being used as insulation in the Maine vacation home.

Quinn is still hard at work in his final days. Just a few weeks before retiring, he thumbs through a five-inch stack of e-mail inquiries for information, all sent in this month. Though the archives’ “customers” can now ask for and access some collections online, certain documents cannot be taken out of the rooms in the back of Deering, Quinn said. And the experience of combing through information with Quinn and his staff cannot be replicated.

“The archivists tell you all kinds of things you didn’t know about,” said Pearl Robinson, a professor of African politics at Tufts University. Robinson is visiting NU on a grant from Tufts due to the library’s extensive Africana collection and Herskovits’ papers housed in the archives.

“They’ve told me things here I’m not seeing in the papers I’ve looked at,” she said.

Aside from prized collections, though, Quinn said his biggest pride is in introducing undergraduates to “the romance of research.”

“A small percentage of students who pass through NU make it to the archives, but the ones who do remember it forever,” he said.

It was Quinn’s own undergraduate experience and “romance with research” that led him to a career as an archivist. The blonde specks in his grey beard today are reminders of the man who protested the Vietnam War and marched for the Civil Rights movement as a student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s.

Needing to support a wife and daughter, he took a job with the State Historical Society of Wisconsin as a graduate student and later worked at the University of Wisconsin-Madison archives before arriving at NU.

Each day he is greeted at his desk by photos of his wife, favorite poets, a collection of name tags from archivist conventions and a computer screensaver that flashes with lyrics from the international workers’ anthem.

“I’m not just a boring librarian,” said Quinn, who has written four novels, one of which was published under a pseudonym he won’t reveal.

Quinn plans to continue work on the novels in retirement. He will spend most of his time at his home in Lake Geneva, Wis. where he’ll take his wife – and all the university’s secrets.

[email protected].

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
Archivist to retire at end of the month