Maintaining Our History: Cleveland State University Archives
Written by Jessica Lynn Nichols // Photographed by Max Torres
A conversation with University Archivist Bill Becker.
On the third floor of the Michael Schwartz Library, in RT 310, you will find the Cleveland State University Archives. You will notice the stacks, shelves upon shelves of books, boxes and binders. On those shelves, you can find everything from yearbooks, to the minutes of Board of Trustees meetings, to original copies of student publications like The Vindicator.
Since the archives hold so much history for Cleveland State and our magazine, I visited the archives on January 7. While there, I had the pleasure of discussing that history with Bill Becker, who has dedicated more than 40 years to his career as the university archivist. Our first topic was the archives themselves. “An archives is created to be a record storage center,” Becker explained. “So that people have access to the records.” But maintaining the university archives is not simply a matter of collecting all the existing documents from a time period and then keeping them forever. As an archivist, Becker has to consider many factors regarding each record and its potential future use to university students and faculty.“There’s a document’s administrative value, its legal value, its fiscal value, and its historical value,” he said. “You make judgment calls. ‘Is this really important?’”
Becker was named the university archivist in 1980 after working as the assistant archivist for six years prior. He spent a brief period as a teacher’s assistant at West Technical High School in Cleveland, but soon reconsidered. “You get these questions [from relatives] like, ‘What are you gonna do with a history degree?’” Becker recalled with a laugh. But clearly, Becker’s studies were the foundation of a valuable, impactful career.
During our conversation, I was constantly amazed by the depth of his knowledge about Cleveland State and its history. When I asked him what he enjoys most about his work as an archivist, he considered the question for a moment. “There’s no one component [that is most rewarding],” he told me. “You’re doing a service for the university. . . . You get satisfaction out of it. And also, you become an expert in the history of the university,” Becker continued. “You start putting pieces together and asking, ‘Why did this happen?’”
Becker holds a Master’s degree in history from Case Western Reserve University, including training in archives and records. Before that, he was an undergrad at Cleveland State. When our conversation turned to the history of The Vindicator, he offered not only historical records, but also his firsthand recollections of the campus climate at the beginning of our publication’s history. “It goes back further than the racist cartoon [printed in the Cauldron]. There was a lot of feeling among the Black students here that their needs weren’t being paid attention to,” he remembered. “[The cartoon] was what ignited it.”
Later in our interview, Becker recalled some administrative changes made to degree requirements while he was a student. As we talked, he stood from his chair and searched a nearby stack for the relevant records. Finding it, he quickly flipped through the pages and pointed out what he had been looking for. I had the opportunity to view an original copy of the degree catalog for 1972, including one important update to the general education requirements. At the time, general education courses were divided into four numbered groups organized by subject, similar to current divisions of natural sciences, arts and humanities, and so on. Group IV, introduced in 1972, was a new category that incorporated “selected courses in contemporary social problems” into general education — not unlike the current catalog’s Social Diversity requirement.
I found it intriguing and heartening to learn that, amid the student activism of the late 60s and early 70s, the university did respond to some of the need for better representation by making lasting structural changes to the curriculum. Even though I am not a student of history, my short time in the archives uncovered topics of fascination. Any Cleveland State student could find inspiration and resources for rewarding research there.
At the end of our interview, Becker invited me to view an original print copy of the January 30, 1970 issue of The Vindicator — our very first issue. With care, he retrieved it and I took a look. In 1970, The Vindicator was not yet published as a magazine, but as a newspaper. The front page was brittle, but well-preserved; fully intact, and fully legible. I could practically feel the energy of activism and new voices from the sight of still-bold ink against the paper. It was truly incredible to see that piece of history up close. More than that, it impacted me as a current Vindi writer, knowing that as I participate in this publication, I am connected to the trailblazers who contributed to that first issue. To experience the years of Cleveland State history contained in the archives can be awe-inspiring.
After one morning spent in the archives, I am certain that I have only scratched the surface of everything on the shelves there. Though our interview focused primarily on The Vindicator and the surrounding culture of Cleveland State in the 60s and 70s, we also discussed topics such as the university’s origins as Fenn College — origins comprehensively documented in the archives. The archives also offer a glimpse at the history of Cleveland as a whole, including the way that our university has changed its culture and its skyline over the years. The archive records are amazing in their depth and scope, and what Mr. Becker has done to care for them is deeply meaningful for our university. I hope that students will take the opportunity to visit the archives and learn from our history.