A Sketch of a Bygone Century: Processing the Vertical Files, 1910-2017

Wilkes University Archives has a guest blogpost written by Thomas Morgan, a Junior History Major. Tom, a former member of the defunct Marching Colonels, is a professional musician, historian, published poetry author, and local volunteer. After graduation, he intends to continue his work as a historian, potentially through a Master’s Degree. Also, he plans to find a related job locally while continuing his work as a jazz musician.

In Summer 2021, Tom processed the Vertical Files collection, 1910-2017, a collection of subject files that Eugene S. Farley Librarians created and continued to expand from the 1970s to 2017. Prior to the internet, reference librarians would use vertical files (also known as Subject files) to provide access to local, state, and national information. Our Vertical Files provide access to information on Wilkes College/University, Pennsylvania, New York, and U.S. historical information.   His finding aid can be found here. Below are his reflections. 

The Vertical Files, as I have observed, are rather unique when it comes to library collections. Rather than following a set theme in a collection, the files encompass more than a century of assorted data, paperwork, letters, photos, books, pamphlets, memos and building blueprints. Truly, a stranger assortment of papers is rarely seen, although it should also be noted that several pieces are restricted from public access due to private or sensitive information. These are a few of the pieces I found particularly odd or interesting, whether from historical interest, amusement, or sheer confusion. 

The first piece requiring examination is also one of the oldest, and incredibly delicate: a collection of United Traction paperwork dating from 1910 to 1918, this provides valuable insight into early 20th century industrial America. The reports from 1917 and 1918 specifically mention changes in material supply and contracts caused by “the war”, with multiple mentions of the conflict in Europe. This particular Annual Report, with data from 1918, exemplifies the presence of history in these documents, with its intersection between industrial civilian and military information. While there are also later-dated examples which mention the Great War, this offers a unique historical perspective- that of being able to hear about the effects of the war in the United States from a primary source, one written during the conflict. This opportunity, so rarely seen after more than a century, should not have the importance of its contents understated.

    Agnes is, to this very day, a sore spot for many of the residents of the Wyoming Valley, and all those who do research here. That said, those problems are nothing compared to what this primary source shows Agnes to have been: a destructive force of nature unlike any other. This particular area includes some primary sources, including a personal, handwritten account of events, papers and articles denoting the damage to both Wilkes College and Wilkes-Barre proper, as well as a request from Wilkes to its alumni for financial aid for reconstruction. All of this information paints the picture of how devastating Agnes really was- not a minor flood, or a retaining wall failure, but a powerful hurricane that impacted the region. 

    This particular book is significant enough to make it relevant, even if it is for a simple question: “Why do we have this?”. This book detailing counter-terrorism for the 21st century is meant for educational purposes, although that stil does beg the question of how it got into the archives. It was likely given to the University as a security aid, given that it was published the same year as the invasion of Iraq. That is pure speculation, however- we may never truly know how such a strange and curious book got into an archivist’s collection.

    Immense in its significance to our institution’s history, this copy of the Wilkes College Charter is one of two pieces that ensure our university is what it is today. Written in 1947, the adoption of the charter separated Wilkes College from Bucknell University. It provides the names of the original directors, the property Wilkes held at the time of separation, the original committees and court documents, as well as the simple statement of name and address. Without this document, Wilkes University would not exist, at least as a separate institution. Although other copies almost certainly have survived, having one free for study should be a boon to the students here.

    From Washington to Gettysburg, and indeed everywhere else, colleges and universities are commonly built in historic districts of cities and towns. Regrettably, this often ends up with some historic buildings being demolished or renovated beyond recognition. This tends to result in some amount of conflict with the local population, who take offense at their historic buildings being destroyed in favor of newer architecture. These articles are perfect examples of this- disagreements and efforts to preserve historic districts across the United States at various universities. These also show some of the compromises that can be reached between educational institutions and the people of their towns, with some efforts ending easily and others reaching courts or even the streets. It should be noted that Wilkes is not immune to this issue, which is likely why we have this collection of information.

    This seven-page letter, though now just a copy, is one of the central foundations of Wilkes as we know it today. Written by a Professor of Education named F. G. Davis and addressed to President Homer P. Rainey of Bucknell University, the letter provides an argument and outline for the opening of Bucknell University Junior College in Wilkes-Barre. Davis argues in favor of the college with a number of points, notably finance, culture, and local support. The proposal is central to Wilkes’ identity as a small college with a well-rounded curriculum, as the curricula in the letter, while decidedly smaller than today’s offerings, provide a note of familiarity. Also worked out are the costs and benefits of opening the junior college: Davis provides estimates for the costs of buildings, equipment and staff, as well as growth projections and vague projections for enrollment increases. Accreditation is accounted for in the proposal via communication with the State authorities, and a number of statements from local authorities provide significant support for the establishment of a junior college locally. In truth, given the presence of this letter, we likely have Mr. F. G. Davis to thank for the existence of our institution, since he appears to have cleared a number of obstacles from the formation of the junior college. It would have been remiss of me to not provide the recognition deserved here.

    There are a number of files which are capable of causing one to question a number of things, namely who and why. This appears to be a school project from the late 1940s, based off of an outline of courses and schedules from Wilkes College. That said, it is a rather odd rendition, being incredibly risque for the time period. There is no author’s name, nor is there an assignment sheet or grade attached. This appears to be, for all intents and purposes, a class schedule- although why such a schedule, with such unusual class descriptions, might have been written is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it was merely a joke, and the student who wrote this is having the laugh of a lifetime.

Lacy, Atherton and Davis, named after James Oscar Lacy, Thomas Atherton, and John W. Davis, was an architectural firm founded in 1945 and responsible for much of the architecture around Wilkes-Barre and Pennsylvania as a whole for multiple decades. This particular series contains blueprints, construction contracts, photographs of buildings in various states of completion, promotional materials for jointly contracted companies, and information from the national architectural community. Several local institutions in Northeastern Pennsylvania hired the architectural firm which included, but were not limited to, academic institutions such as universities and school districts, cities and towns, banking companies, churches, hospitals, and even a prison. The business operated through the 1980s, although it is unclear when the company actually dissolved.

Below are photographs of the WVIA Channel 44 building, Coughlin High School, and the Sterling Hotel as fairly well-known examples of their work. These photographs are currently being digitized and will be made available within the finding aid when completed.

Coughlin High School Gymnasium
outside the Sterling Hotel
The Sterling Hotel

The company holds special significance to Wilkes University for designing and building The Stark Learning Center.  The Stark Learning Center, or Stark Hall as it was originally called, is one of the most widely used buildings on campus, being central to many of the science and engineering programs, as well as home to the nursing program. Nary a student has passed through this university without at least a few classes in Stark at some point in four years. As such, seeing the contrasts between the original building and its current remodeled counterpart some 60 years later is quite interesting, given its significance to so many generations of students. Indeed, one could even say that these plans are the roots of a building central to life at Wilkes.

Many of these files have little in common with each other besides their presence in the Vertical Files, however that matters little. What does matter is the definition they provide for the composition of the vertical files, and its mixture of all walks of life. It really is impressive that so much information has been collected over the years, and that so much of it is historically significant: not just to Wilkes itself, but also to a variety of individuals and groups. The Vertical Files tell a plethora of stories, not just academics. 

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