Posted by: Pam Hackbart-Dean | May 27, 2015

Charles Tenney Project by Elizabeth Hartman

“Oh, I remember this stamp dispenser sitting on his desk! We’d hide in his library stacks as he wrote, thinking he couldn’t see us, giggling…”

Generations of descendants fondly gaze at my display on our University Objectives, housed next to the poetic statement itself. And so ended my year-long affair with Charles Dewey Tenney, Vice-President, Poet, Critic, Philosopher, Father, Grandfather, and writer of our Objectives.

A Monument to Life. The exhibit was precised from the Charles Dewey Tenney papers. When I began, the behemoth stack of boxes blinded the brain and dwarfed any collection I previously processed. In a warehouse a mile away, even more boxes awaited my attention. In all there were more than 100 containers, a barrage of papers and reports and notes and manuscripts and correspondence.

In this state the collection is mere data, its contents unknown, pure potential. But the corrugated beige hides a secret. Within I find the story of Southern Illinois University, a Normal School fledgling transformed into a research university system. I find the story of a man brought up under portraits of great men and shelves of great books, who himself came to be a great man writing a great book, The Discovery of Discovery.

The Discovery of Disorganization. Unearthing this story was no slight task. Materials become disarrayed over time without the care of organization – such is entropy. Opening a box is followed immediately by either joy or dismay. Will it be neatly filed folders, all related and arranged? Or will I find a wave of crumbling parchment? How can I maintain the integrity of this collection, paying proper tribute to whatever system a creator may have had, while still telling a story through organization?

The Pain of Letting Go. Even worse, there is the issue of space. Keeping the massive card and quote catalogs Tenney meticulously crafted was impossible. I had to decide how to represent his research process without taking up half of our vault.

In the end, we kept a section of his catalogs as evidence of the inner workings of his mind, along with some personal artifacts, like his stamp dispenser. For now it sits on my desk, reminding me of the balance between archive fever and the constraints of time and space.  The collection is not done, of course, and Tenney is not dead. He lives again every time his papers are used. That is what we archivists are here for – allowing the past to enrich the present.

(Elizabeth is a graduate student in Special Collections and is receiving her MA in philosophy later this summer.)



  1. Great work, Liz!

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