Preserving the College's History

Q&A with the College archivist
Ben Binversie ’17

Chris Jones, Archivist of the CollegeChris Jones, special collections librarian and archivist of the College, stumbled into archival work while working in the rare books collection as a student at the University of Illinois, but he has since found a home in the basement of Burling Library, where he oversees a collection of more than 10,000 volumes. Within the collection lies the meaningful history of the College, as seen through institutional documents, photographs, letters, and other artifacts. But those items are just the tip of the iceberg for Jones, as he works to preserve the stories from Grinnell’s past and ensure their longevity for future generations.

Ben Binversie ’17 ventured down into the Burling Library basement to talk with Jones about his work.

BB: How do you collect the current happenings and publications at the College?

CJ: We use what’s referred to as a sampling plan. So, we don’t try to necessarily collect every single document that has ever been printed on a College printer, but we do try to collect enough about each event or lecture held on campus to give a future researcher an idea of why it might have been important. We try to capture as many of the student-led activities as possible and hope that it’s good enough.

Do you have any favorite moments in Grinnell’s history that you’ve learned about through the archives?

The [1971] takeover of Burling Library by the Concerned Black Students (CBS) was a big deal. Very few people understand that at the time that that happened, the College administrative offices were located in Burling basement. They chained themselves inside the building that housed the administrative offices so that the administrators had to listen to them.

How do you interact with alumni through the archives?

During Reunion, Allison Haack, library assistant, and I have set up a table for alumni to look through photos and help identify the people, places, and events depicted. It’s been great for us, and the alumni enjoy seeing the old photos and contributing to our work. Digital Grinnell and The Scarlet & Black online archive are great resources for alumni to view pictures or information from their time on campus.

What are some of your favorite highlights of the collection?

Our two oldest printed books were both printed in 1477. One of them weighs in at a solid 9.5 pounds, and the front and back covers are both made out of wood. That one will be around for a long time. I also really like the Salvador Dali-illustrated Alice in Wonderland. That’s pretty trippy.

Are there any new projects on the horizon?

The College recently negotiated with Salisbury House in Des Moines to purchase approximately 3,000 volumes and 2,500 documents from that collection, including a couple of books printed between 1400 and 1500, medieval manuscripts, and first editions of Sinclair Lewis, among other treasures [See Page 6]. In anticipation of acquiring the collection, we installed compact shelving in the vaults so we could have space to house all of it. Previously, our collection included around 10,000 volumes in the archives, and the new shelving created space for the additional volumes from the Salisbury House library collection.

If you have questions with which the archives might be able to assist, Jones encourages you to contact him. He is happy to take phone calls, 641-269-3364, or emails joneschr[at]grinnell[dot]edu, but the archivist in him really appreciates a good old-fashioned handwritten letter, so that’s an option, too.

To hear the full interview with Jones, see Season 2 of the podcast All Things Grinnell at or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Share / Discuss