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One Last Thing...

Forward Into the Past

A visit to the archives brings history to life

by Andrew Tibbetts ’06

Art graphic

Documents such as Amos Eaton's geological survey of the Erie Canal are preserved in the Institute's archives.

Over the last couple of years, I have had the opportunity to experience something that I am sure very few students do during their tenure here at RPI. No, I am not talking about staying up until 7 a.m. finishing The Poly; I am talking about doing research on the history of RPI in the archives room of the Folsom Library.

Now, I know that many people on this campus cringe at the thought of reading anything that could be described as “history,” but the archives offer a lot of fascinating material dating back to 1824 from many different areas of the Institute. There are old school publications, histories of student and faculty governments, planning documents and memos, histories of various clubs, and many other things extending back decades.

These materials show the evolution of the campus throughout the years — the changes that have been made or the things that have stayed the same. It can be pretty funny, too. I remember sitting and laughing at the documents from the 1960s predicting that due to out-of-control tuition hikes, the cost of a year’s education at RPI might actually top $14,000 by 2000. One of the most hilarious items I found was a line in a School of Architecture planning document from 1968 pointing out that “consistent student unhappiness” is one of the greatest traditions at RPI.

One of the major things I have learned in my trips to the archives is that for decades the Institute has been fond of generating master plans. The current Rensselaer Plan, for example, is reminiscent of George Low’s 1977 Rensselaer 2000, which had drawn inspiration from Benjamin Franklin Greene’s 1855 The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and all reference Amos Eaton’s 1824 The Rensselaerean Plan.

Consider these objectives: A larger faculty, more research money, more students from around the country and the world, better relationships with the City of Troy, new athletics facilities, and an emphasis on communications and the performing arts. What do all these have in common? Many would say that these are all parts of The Rensselaer Plan. Some would be surprised to learn, though, that this list of goals is taken from Rensselaer 2000.

Richard Folsom’s 1968 Goals for Rensselaer is yet another example. The plan called for more research, more humanities and “liberal learning,” more student life buildings for athletics and performing arts, more interdisciplinary programs, and more links with the community — goals echoed in The Rensselaer Plan. One of the essays used in planning the Goals calls for supporting “several areas which are not at all scientific or technological,” explaining that, “We have been an excellent engineering school, but we haven’t been a very good university.”

John Hawley ’70, in a 1968 editorial in The Poly, wrote that RPI required sudden, quick, and drastic change, some of these very changes, in order to succeed in the future. If it did not embrace these changes, he wrote, then we might as well rename the school to something more fitting: the Rensselaer University of Technology — good old RUT. This is something that could very well appear in the pages of The Poly today, as debate continues over the direction of the school under the new plan.

Almost all of this, and more, is open to anyone looking to read through it out of idle curiosity or for research purposes. One day while I was in the archives, a fraternity brother was trying to find out what had happened to some relic from his house that had disappeared in the mid-1980s. The archivists were able to help him track down some documentation on it within a few minutes. While he was not able to figure out exactly what had happened, he found a lot more information that he did not have when he walked in.

This is exactly like what my experience has been with the archives. The staff members are some of the most helpful people on campus, and they are really dedicated to helping you find the answers to whatever questions you have.

I often encourage my fellow students to find out more about the history of RPI through the resources available in the archives. In many cases, it’s the only opportunity they’ll have to learn more about this rich and, often, entertaining history — an opportunity not to be missed.

Alumni, professors emeriti, and others who have been associated with RPI’s history also can help to preserve as much information as possible. I have noticed that RPI has an extremely short institutional memory, but the Institute has one of the longest and most storied university histories in the country — or even the world. Efforts should be made toward educating the new generation, and re-educating the older ones, of the parts of our history that extend past the Alumni Hall of Fame or the display case in the Jonsson Engineering Center.

More displays — or even a real museum — on campus would bring this past alive. Alumni can also take the time to drop by their old clubs and departments to tell current students about their RPI experiences. If everyone tells a part of their stories, then the campus — and the students of tomorrow — will gain a lot.

Andrew Tibbetts ’06 is the news editor and the former editor-in-chief of The Polytechnic. He is a computer science, and computer and systems engineering major.

Related Link:
Rensselaer Archives and Special Collections

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