March 10, 2010

Alumni Donate Collection Of Cornelliana to Library

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Mike Whalen ’69 and his wife Catherine, who graduated from the University in 1970, donated a collection of more than 200 items owned by Cornell students during the late 1800s and early 1900s to Kroch Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections in December. The collection consists primarily of photographs and scrapbooks, but also includes notebooks and a diploma from 1896.

“If I hoarded them, only I [could] see them. It is very important that these objects be in museums,” Whalen said, adding that he donated the collection so that everyone would have the opportunity to view them.

“Cornell really does like to have these objects in collections so that all the alumni and students and others who are interested can see and use them,” Whalen said.

Whalen first became interested in starting a collection about Cornell’s history when he worked for the University. He was employed for more than 38 years, spending most of his time in the Budget and Planning Division. On occasion, he needed to look up a fact about Cornell’s past in the library and found the objects the library already owned fascinating. He then decided to start a collection of his own.

“I always planned to donate them and when I retired this summer, I decided it was time,” Whalen said. Over the course of three years, he accumulated more than 200 items, buying them from bookstores and online, especially from eBay.

“Sometimes it’s a fierce competition,” Whalen said, noting that other collectors usually only buy items for themselves, with no plans to eventually donate the items.

“This type of thing is really appreciated by the library,” Evan Fay Earle ’02, a collections assistant in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections said. “We can’t afford to buy everything that shows up online. It’s a great feeling to have it back in Ithaca where it came from.”

Whalen said that perhaps the most significant item is a photograph of William Benjamin Bowler 1872. According to Whalen, who conducted research on Bowler, he was the first Haitian student at Cornell. He may have also been the University’s first student of African descent.

The collection also consists of scrapbooks compiled by students during their time at Cornell. According to Earle, students commonly created scrapbooks in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He said the hobby has declined since then, especially since the advent of digital photos has reduced the number of pictures saved in physical form.

“They capture a perfect snapshot of what the student was doing,” Earle said. “It’s their whole four years at Cornell.” He emphasized that, unlike history books on the University, the scrapbooks provide a personal look at the life of students a century ago. He also noted that amateur photographers took most of the photographs, so most of them were never published.

“It’s not the same photos you keep seeing over and over again in Cornell history books,” Earle said.

The library currently has no plans to display the collection, but like all collections in the library, any member of the Cornell community can view it upon request. Cornell is one of the few universities that places little or no limits on its rare book collections and allows undergraduates to view them.

Original Author: Joseph Niczky