Vast Rowan archives are open for exploration

Vast Rowan archives are open for exploration

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University Archivist Sara Borden displays rare document.

These aren’t your father’s archives.

Although, they could be. Or maybe your grandfather’s. Or your great aunt’s. Or an ancestor’s who settled in South Jersey in the 1600s and negotiated with Native Americans for a plot of land on which to build a new life in the New World.

The vast Rowan University archives, which were recently relocated to the third floor of Campbell Library, are available for students, faculty, staff and visitors to come in and explore.

Containing thousands of age-old documents and artifacts that help tell the story of Rowan, the borough, the region, even America, the archives are comprised of more than 11,000 volumes and 700 linear feet of materials including manuscripts, letters, business records, artifacts, memorabilia and more – from the hyper local (original letters to parents from Glassboro State Normal School Principal Jerohn Savitz) to rare, international items including a volume, circa 1499, by Italian poet Panfilo Sassi (below left).

There is even an original “safe conduct pass” believed to be associated with John Smith and the founding of Virginia’s Jamestown settlement.

“It’s a mystery how we happen to have some of these particular items,” said University Archivist Sara Borden.

Borden said many items in the archives were part of specific collections donated to the University but, in some cases, donors have simply dropped stuff off.

Hired in 2016 in part to help organize archives dating back to the University’s 1923 founding, she said even a casual perusal can yield exciting discoveries, like a real life episode of the popular, long-running Travel Channel program Mysteries at the Museum.

“It’s always exciting,” Borden said. “You never know what you’re going to come across.”

Relatively recent holdings include journals and correspondence that Dr. Marvin Creamer, a then-recently-retired Rowan geography professor, produced before and during his historic around the world sail. Creamer, between December 1982, and May 1984, became the world’s first known sailor to circumnavigate the earth without navigational tools of any kind, not even a watch.

Also included in the collection is an actual sail from Creamer’s 36-foot boat, the Globe Star.

“His journals and correspondence are fairly extensive,” Borden said. “They include letters he wrote before the trip seeking sponsorships from corporations.”

Historic holdings

Borden said classes and individuals alike are welcome to search the archives for personal, scholastic and commercial research projects. She said while many amateur genealogists find success using online searches like Ancestry.com, there’s a limit to how much information those sites can provide.

“If you’re looking for, say, a land deed, usually those things were not digitized and put online,” she said.

But one might find such a deed in the Rowan archives. The collection contains thousands of deeds, some dating as far back as the 1600s, when English settlers struck deals with Native Americans to colonize their land.

Unfolding such a crinkly, yellowed document, the first person in perhaps hundreds of years to view it, can be a singularly rewarding experience, Borden said.

“It makes the hairs stand up on your arms,” she said.

Rising senior Ian McGowan, a dual history and subject matter education major from Collingswood, had that very experience.

Immersed in the archives for several weeks this summer while working on a paper about New Jersey’s involvement in the Civil War, McGowan discovered an out of print Woodbury newspaper called The Constitution and that discovery practically wrote his paper for him, he said.

During the war, he said, some residents in northern New Jersey portrayed residents of the southern part of the state as “southern sympathizers and traitors to the union. My paper sought to disprove that,” McGowan said.

He said reprints of the newspaper produced by the Gloucester County Historical Society showed the exact opposite.

“This was a Republican newspaper, and the archive had nearly every article, every issue reprinted into a book,” McGowan said. “In fact, they had several books about New Jersey’s involvement in Civil War battles. I sculpted all of my arguments around what I found in those books.”

Open for exploration

Kathryn Croskey, marketing coordinator for Rowan’s library system, said the staff cannot identify and catalog every piece in the collection and that is another reason they encourage students, faculty, staff, even members of the public, to come in and review them.

“A lot of our collections are mysteries waiting to be explored,” Croskey said. “And the way we’re going to make discoveries is by having classes and researchers come through.”

Croskey said the archives recently moved from a room in the library’s fifth floor tower specifically to provide better access to them.

Formal collections within the archives include:

  • the Frank H. Stewart Collection (including clip at right), which includes materials from colonial events and families of the southern New Jersey and Philadelphia region, including glass plate negatives, personal effects and artifacts including some from the first U.S. Mint in Philadelphia;
  • original photographs from the historic 1967 Hollybush Summit between President Lyndon Johnson and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin;
  • the papers of Thomas Whitney Synnott, a local businessman and philanthropist whose collection, dated 1871 to 1955, includes correspondence, receipts, legal documents, financial plans, court records, contracts and more;
  • a collection from the estate of Charles A. Wolverton, a U.S. Congressman representing New Jersey’s First District from 1927-1959 that documents his political career through correspondence, photographs, newspaper clippings and scrapbooks.

For more information, email University Archives & Special Collections or call 856-256-4967. Appointments are suggested.