Larry landis has been digging into OSU history for a long time, but five years ago he dug in even deeper with a big project to create a pictorial history of the university.
How many pictures did he have to choose from? Oh 3/4 of a million or so.
How many did he have to choose? 500 or so.
In the fall of 2005 then-OSU Press director Karen Orford approached him to gauge his interest because she’d worked on one at the University of Georgia and thought a similar project at OSU would be quite successful. There were some preliminary discussions, but the project was shelved until the summer of 2010 when Landis picked it up again. He worked with a student to start identifying images, but a merger of the University Archives and Special Collections departments put the project on hold again.
Fall 2012 the project was reinvigorated with a new conversation and new prioritization by the university as it prepared for the 150 anniversary of its establishment; he wanted this book to be a celebration of the school and focused on its land grant mission, as well as how the school has changed over time. But it was a tough job because there so many great photos to choose from? The reproductions of the images was really high, even in the scope of the history of photography, and there has been a deep history of quality photography by students and faculty since the 1890s.
He began to work in earnest to identify images for an official publication proposal in early 2013. The majority of the research happened in the summer 2013, with chapter narratives written the following fall. First draft submissions happened in early July of 2014, reviewers gave feedback in November 2014 and he learned he had to cut over 100 of the 600 images he’d chosen. Spring 2015, with 500 images total, he submitted the final draft.
I’m always curious about how you make these choices, so I asked.
He wanted to include pictures that people hadn’t seen, offering a balance between iconic and unfamiliar. Sometimes there were pictures that were terrific, and iconic in their own right, but were essentially inaccessible because of format. For example, many from P25 were actually glass negatives. I did have to ask if there were some that he had to leave out that he was attached to but that didn’t fit. He said he wished he could included more early building photos, including one of the early Vet Med building, but the one that didn’t make it that he really regrets is one of Helen Gilkey (early OSU botanist) because we are seeing a surge in focus on women in the STEM fields.
Dr. Helen Gilkey with students. Helen Margaret Gilkey received her Master's degree in Botany from Oregon Agricultural College in 1911. She served as the Curator of the Herbarium for 33 years, introducing about 50,000 new plant specimen.
Fortunately, there will be a digital supplement with 100 of the images he had to cut. They will be tagged as “not included,” but will also allow for him to provide more explanation for those pictures that could have fit into more than one chapter – an obvious benefit over a print book!
Another piece I was curious about was how he kept track of his research, and the follow up curiosity would be how he kept track of his choices. He had a solid sense of what was in each collection, so he certainly was far from scratch as a starting point, but he intentionally selected collections he wasn’t familiar with when he was looking. He didn’t touch every collection, but estimates he did look through 75% of them. Once he found good candidates he had them scanned if they weren’t already also in digital format, and then made a paper print out of each, did a rough sort into the categories he’d delineated in the proposal, and put pictures in file folders. Archivists, we love our file folders.
Concurrent to Landis’ project emeritus OSU professor Bill Robbins was working on a narrative history of the university, so he knew he didn’t need to focus on both a deep narrative and deep pictorial history. For him, it was the pictures that would offer the narrative, though he found that captions could still be quite long as he tried to give background context for what people were seeing! Bill’s book will go into much more detail and Larry sees them as bookends of a sort. There will likely be differences in interpretation because they are historians of different generations, but the books are complimentary and Bill wrote the foreword. Only a few colleges or universities have both narrative and pictorial history, so this will be even more unique for OSU.
Look for the book to arrive in late October, with public launch events in Portland (11/12, Architectural Heritage Center), Philomath (11/14, Benton County Historical Society), and Corvallis (11/21). You’ll likely find the book at the OSU Beaver Store and local bookstores, as well as directly through the OSU Press.