The University Archives contain a wealth of campus history. Among other things, you can come here to see archived copies of university publications, explore the UMW Presidents Collections, or seek out a specific department’s records from any number of organizations by browsing our Record Group Headings List.
But one place you may not know to look is in some of the collections listed in the personal manuscript collections inventory. This is a great list of some of the interesting smaller collections we have that don’t quite fit into our standard record groups, but you might not even know they’re there. One of my priorities right now is to help these little gems shine.
My goal is to help make these and others much more accessible and searchable for anyone who might have some interest in exploring our manuscript records. I’m working on arranging, describing, and processing them now, while also thinking of strategies to improve this process in the future and make collections (especially those with high research potential) available in a quick and organized way. Simultaneously, we’re working on developing new finding aids so researchers from anywhere can better understand the content of some of our manuscript collections. Our digital collections are excellent and only getting better, but there are still items of intrigue to be found among the papers.
My first task in this project has been processing the Michael Louis Altstetter Records, and I’d like to share a little about what I’ve found.
Dr. Altstetter was the Dean of Instruction and Registrar from 1929-1934, beginning shortly after President Combs officially took office. Despite being one of Combs’ earliest appointments, a rift developed between Altstetter and Combs within a few years. Altstetter’s position was eliminated, the administration publicly citing an “administrative reorganization” (Alvey 180). The Dean was encouraged to submit his resignation and he parted ways with the college in 1934. Combs never provided any further details.
The Altstetter records themselves consist of entirely correspondence. Personally, I love reading letters from the past. Even though much of what’s available here is administrative and business correspondence, they serve as an excellent insight into the letter-writer’s personality and what his priorities were. You can see how an upper lever administrator interacted with students, parents, faculty, and other administrators. There’s a lot to learn about academics and college life at that time.
About a third of the collection contains correspondence pertaining specifically to academic deficiencies and discipline and features exchanges between Dean Altstetter and the parents of struggling students. In such a letter from December 15, 1931, he expresses concerns to a girl’s father over her lack of confidence:
“I cannot believe that she is hopeless…”
Parents were routinely notified by letter from the Dean if their daughter’s performance was lacking, and in some cases, whether or not they should continue at the college. Through his letters, Altstetter exhibits a degree of personal involvement in his students’ lives that speaks to a long tradition of individualized attention here at UMW.
The correspondence is also helpful in understanding some of the educational standards of the time, and how business was conducted with the state. Another part of the collection is correspondence between Dean Altstetter and the State Board of Education, chiefly concerning teacher certifications and whether the ladies of Fredericksburg had met the appropriate state-level standards. There’s numerous back and forth about credits and criteria, and each letter often concerns a single student’s history.
The rest of the collection is grouped as “general correspondence” and covers a range of topics. Living as we do in the digital age, I find it fascinating to look at the number of tasks that were once only accomplished by writing letters, like reserving a room at a hotel or ordering a book, that I can now do in seconds. Writing a letter was also the best way to obtain desired information about the college, such as whether or not boys are allowed.
“Absolutely no men…”
More about boys in a later update.
I hope to have a completed finding aid for this collection (and others) soon!
Michael Louis Altstetter Records, Special Collections and University Archives, Simpson Library, University of Mary Washington.
Alvey, Edward, Jr. History of Mary Washington College, 1908-1972. University of Virginia Press, 1974.