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Interview with the University Archivist: Leanna Barcelona

University Archivist Leanna Barcelona

Leanna Barcelona joined UIC as the university archivist in June 2020. Barcelona is originally from the Chicago area and earned her Bachelor’s degree in history and political science and her Master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Prior to joining UIC, Barcelona was the university archivist at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

Barcelona’s role centers on acquiring, processing and preserving the historical records of the University of Illinois Chicago and its predecessor institutions dating from the establishment of the Chicago College of Pharmacy in 1859. These include the records of the offices, colleges, departments and other units at UIC, as well as select professional and personal papers of administrators, faculty, staff and alumni. The materials are housed in the official repository of UIC, the University Archives, which is part of the Special Collections and University Archives department. Materials are housed in and accessible through reading rooms at the Richard J. Daley Library and the Library of the Health Sciences – Chicago. Many materials are also available online. Users can explore descriptions of available materials through the UIC Special Collections and University Archives Finding Aid Search at or by submitting an inquiry through Ask A Librarian.

What do university archives offer?

Special collections and university archives at academic institutions are really what set libraries apart from one another. Any academic institution can subscribe to databases and get journals and purchase books and you would probably see a lot of similarities across different institutions. But special collections and university archives make libraries unique, and they can be research destinations not just for faculty and staff, but for community members and scholars from the U.S. and around the world. They are here to stay. Even though some things may change, the records will still be here and that’s really important.

How are UIC’s archives different from Baylor’s?

Baylor University is a private religious institution, and the records are very different from what we have at UIC because there are stakeholders there that you wouldn’t see at a public university. Here, the access piece is different also because public university records are also state records. A lot of archival collections at Baylor focused on religious history or the Department of Religion—those were important topics. UIC is a more diverse institution, and I hope that diversity comes through in the records.

What sets UIC’s archives apart from other institutions?

Our health sciences side of campus is different. UIC has a different history because it is a branch of a larger institution. That plays a big role. There is a lot to keep track of in terms of health sciences and when some of those schools and colleges started and how they evolved into what they are now. A lot of our colleges have been around for a while. Something I am working on right now is fully grasping the different sides of campus. We also have the smaller sites, Peoria and Rockford. That is somewhat unique because we are one university in a system and we also have our own smaller branches. We have a lot of faculty papers. We have a lot of records from the College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts and the College of Urban Planning and Public Administration. Those are strong areas and they fit well with our other collections. We’ve collected a lot of design and architectural history related to Chicago.

What has been your biggest challenge since joining UIC?

Becoming comfortable and familiar with everything. I haven’t been able to be on site as much as I normally would. This is a job that has never been done remotely. I need to be there in person to see the collections. Being able to go in since the building has opened for the fall semester has really helped. I can actually see what work needs to be done.

What would you encourage UIC faculty to share with us?

We are always interested in faculty papers. Typically those come after retirement. But we are interested in their work and research, preparation for classes. The faculty is such an interesting group because they present a lot of different opportunities for us. They are not just donors. They are people we would like to see come in and collaborate with, bring their students in for instruction, and have students get that hands on experience–but maybe more of that primary research experience right now [due to the pandemic]. We are working on ways to deliver that remotely through our digitized collections.

What can undergraduates or students new to accessing primary materials learn from looking at university archives?

So much! When I was at Baylor I was embedded in a graduate course every fall that would’ve been a benefit to undergraduates as well, and it was a history of higher education. Students were learning about how higher education in the country has changed over time but then using the university as a case study arranged by a topic. Some would look at curriculum, access, student life and look at records and make sense of what other students before them had to go through. That to me is so powerful. Students like to learn about other students. They like to see what they were doing 20 or 40 to years before them because they relate to it. It is one thing to look at the Board of Trustees minutes, and those are valuable because you can look back in the minutes and see for example when the University of Illinois was made co-educational and that is very powerful; but it is another thing when the students see themselves in the records and understand that what they are doing now will become a part of the historical record for an institution.

What is your view of the role of digitization in the future of the archives?

In terms of special collections and university archives in the digital world, we want to be able to share our collections with as many people as we can, and digitizing things is a good way to do that. But there is a lot of work involved in providing access to a physical item in a digital format in a meaningful way. You can’t just scan it and put it up online. There are a lot of other steps so people can find it, access it and use it. There is also something to be said about getting a box with folders in it and finding things in it. When you put something online it is difficult to create that structure and experience. There is no comparison to holding something in your hands, depending on what that is and how important a document it is. Right now we are shifting our focus so we are able to support the teaching faculty on campus so they can still give students that experience while we are not fully operational on site. People ask me all the time, “Can’t you just digitize it and put it online?” That would be so great in some ways but it is a very time consuming process and a lot of people are involved. It also costs a lot of money and figuring out that balance will be something that archivists will have to work with in the future.

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