In a year in which the University of Illinois gave a nod to history, it also heralded its historians. In June, as part of its Sesquicentennial Celebration, the campus accorded its highest honor— the Chancellor’s Medallion—to three men critical to safeguarding the university’s heritage.
Awarded just six times before in its 18-year history, the recognition marks outstanding service on behalf of the campus. Noted for their work were Maynard Brichford, the university’s first archivist; William Maher, current head archivist; and Winton Solberg, professor emeritus of history.
“In this year when we begin our sesquicentennial celebration, it has become clear the most valuable and lasting legacy we have built as a university is our story,” said Chancellor Robert Jones. “All of our great accomplishments, ideas, and innovations trace back to the men and women who have been a part of this institution over the past 150 years.
“Across their respective careers, these three have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that those voices will not be lost or forgotten. They’ve been the unwavering guardians of our history.”
It was another historical landmark—the campus’s centennial in 1967—that prompted the hiring of Brichford in 1963. The university’s first archivist “built the Archives from the ground up,” according to Ellen Swain, the Stewart S. Howe Student Life and Culture archivist, “transforming it into a nationally-renowned program.” Brichford painstakingly collected annual records from college departments to form the basis of university history and went on to install key advances in Archives operations, such as indexing and computer technology to make searching easier. In addition, he created the only historical repository in the nation dedicated to chronicling everyday student life.
Upon Brichford’s retirement in 1995, Maher—who had joined the Archives in 1977—took over as leader. An expert in copyright law, he grew the scope, staff size, and professional stature of the unit, as well as upgraded its facilities to its current location on the main floor of the Main Library building.
Solberg—considered the authority on university history—has written two books on campus and one on the creation of the Big Ten. Heiscurrently at work on a manuscript about Edmund J. James, the first UI president. Known as the Archives’ most beloved user, Solberg has assiduously avoided being named “official historian” in order to maintain his independence in compiling a historical record.
And that independent scrutiny of Illinois history—both the successes and failures—is important in moving forward. “You have to understand the past to know who you are and where you’re going,” Swain said. “Our role in the Archives is to provide information to students and researchers so they understand what they’re part of, and what our struggles have been, and where we’ve fallen short, and where we’ve done great.”
As part of that search, thousands of users visit the Archives each year—more than half of them from the general public—to make use of the unit’s vast resources. That includes 32,000 cubic feet of material, such as newspapers, photographs, letters, and other documents, as well as 20 terabytes of digital records.
In thanking the trio of 2017 Medallion recipients, Jones said, “It is no exaggeration to say that much of our understanding of the values and standards of Illinois has come about because of their work.”