Keeper of History

University Archivist Bergis Jules talks about preserving the stuff of university life, from presidential correspondence to tweets from student organizations.

February 04, 2013

A major university like George Washington generates a huge amount of material worth saving—everything from presidential correspondence to yearbook pages to websites. Vetting, classifying and saving it is a big job, and it’s one that falls, in a large part, to Bergis Jules, university archivist, who came to GW during the fall semester. Mr. Jules spoke to George Washington Today about what an archivist does, how digital media is changing that job and what he’s enjoying most about delving into the university’s history.

Q: Let’s start with the basics. What does a university archivist do?

A: The university archivist works on collecting, managing, organizing and preserving the university’s administrative, social and cultural history. It involves a lot of building and maintaining relationships with all the different university offices that create records that might need to be saved. From the president’s office, for example, that might include speeches, photographs, publications, correspondence and invitations to events that the president attended.

Q: Tell me a little about your background.

A: I attended Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, and studied African American and African studies. After my undergraduate degree, I worked for a few years in student life at Oberlin College before I decided to go back to school for a graduate degree at Indiana University. I received a master’s degree in library and information science with a specialization in archives and records management, and a master’s in African American and African diaspora studies. I found the program to be the perfect marriage of my career interests. I wanted hands-on experience with historical materials and documents, and I am really interested in preserving those records for researchers and historians.

Before coming to GW, I was a project director on two grants for a project called the Black Metropolis Research Consortium at the University of Chicago. We were charged with surveying archival collections all over the city of Chicago and building a comprehensive database of African American-related collections housed at institutions in the city. That involved going into universities, people’s homes and community organizations. There was a certain amount of trust we had to build with folks to have them allow us to go into their attics and their basements to view their records. We talked to a lot of people who had inherited collections and others who had just been collecting for a long time. We surveyed and appraised 1,100 collections, and we also chose about 150 of those to prepare for research by creating finding aids—which are documents detailing information about a collection—and loading them into a publicly searchable database. You can see the project at Black Metropolis Research Consortium web site.

Q: Why did you want to become a university archivist, and what are some of your priorities now that you’re here?

A: What really attracted me to this position was the great reputation of the university and its rich history in the nation’s capital—it’s been around for almost 200 years and that really piqued my interest. I knew I’d be working with some great materials. The university was looking for someone with energy and a lot of ideas about promoting the archives to the university community, alumni and researchers at large, and who could come in and further develop the university archives program and the services we offer. That’s what I’m working on. We have the collections; we have the great stuff. We’re working more on how to manage them and create better access.

One long-term goal I have is to help the university—or at least be involved in the conversation—to develop a university-wide records management program that would go a long way to help us better preserve the institution’s history.  

Q: The Smithsonian is now archiving tweets. Is that something that the university might think about doing?

A: Yes. Dan Chudnov, director of scholarly technology at Gelman, is working on securing funding for a great tool he has developed called Social Feed Manager. With this tool we will be able to collect tweets from a large number of GW offices and student groups. The university archives office fully supports this project, and we are excited to begin working with it.

I see this project benefiting the archives by giving us a new way to document the history of student activity on campus. Since Twitter has come along, it’s been a great way for student groups to get their information out there, post their events and advocate for their causes. This project will allow us to use Twitter as a collection, basically, documenting student organizations on campus.

We also see it as a good way to document the administration’s relationship with the university community. When we gather an office’s physical documents, we miss another piece, which is how that office and its administrators actually interact with the wider university community. When you can preserve tweets from deans and other university administrators, that presents a different way to look at the history of the university.

We’re also working on some web archiving projects in collaboration with Dan’s office that would allow us to archive some of GW’s websites.

Both of these projects serve two major roles, I think. One is to compile rich datasets for researchers. The other is an attempt to preserve the history of the university in the digital age, and that includes preserving some of these social media tools like Twitter, Facebook pages and university web pages. We definitely need to think digitally now.

Q: What do you want the university community to know about the archives?

A: We’re here to support the education mission of the university as a unit within the Special Collections Research Center. That’s our first mission. We’re also here to support the work of any university office or academic department that can benefit from our services. By support, I mean, of course, collecting and preserving university history but also making things accessible to those in the community and the general public who need to use our materials. We really want people to see us as not only as providing a service but also as a partner in making the university better.

Q: Do you have a favorite document or collection that you’ve worked with so far?

A: In my short time here so far, I’ve enjoyed working with the collections related to Mount Vernon College and Seminary, including the papers of Eleanor Lansing Dulles, and the Mount Vernon historical photographs. They are some of the richest materials we hold as far as the history of that great college and the history of higher education for women. I would love to see more researchers using those collections.