DEEP IN THE HEART of the Florida Gulf Coast University campus – on the third floor of the Library, windowless and behind six-inch-thick walls protected by UV-sleeved lights, temperature controls and security cameras – are the treasures of Southwest Florida.
There, in the vault of the University Archives, are musical instruments from South Florida’s first orchestra, journals from forensic anthropologist William R. Maples, day books and press passes from 20th-century photographer Charles Ray, and even the history of FGCU as told through notes from each of its presidents.
These treasures are collected and protected by Melissa VandeBurgt, FGCU’s Head of Archives, Special Collections, and Digital Initiatives. The Los Angeles native has spent the past seven years at FGCU, focusing on building area relationships, collecting historic works, creating FGCU’s digital repository and giving some items permanent residence in the FGCU Archives and Special Collections. Keeping items in the vault – a humidity-and-temperature-controlled room attached to the Archives — or on display in the Gallery protects them from the heat, humidity and bugs of Southwest Florida in a way that local historical societies can’t match.
How to use the archives
FGCU has 23 collections in its University Archives and Special Collections. There are finding aids on the FGCU website:
“Organizations do the best they can with the resources they have,” VandeBurgt said. “They’re doing the best they can to preserve these materials, but sometimes they’re not equipped.”
It was FGCU’s Archive resources that saved seven signed Salvador Dali lithographs from acid-burn. When VandeBurgt started her role in 2012, the Dalis that had been gifted to the university three years prior were still in their original mattes. The mattes were not acid-free, so they were burning the edges of each print. VandeBurgt removed the mattes, put the prints in cold storage to stop the burn, and then held an exhibition with the lithographs and several borrowed pieces from the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. Now, all seven lithographs are on display on the first floor of the Library.
“Things like that shouldn’t be in a vault,” VandeBurgt said. “They’re yours – you should be able to see them. “Library Dean Kathleen Miller says VandeBurgt’s high energy level and ability to envision the future have been assets to the Archives. “She brings such a wonderful combination of a scholar’s curiosity and an artist’s eye to those exhibits, that I think really have brought the Archives forward in a way that they couldn’t without those exhibits,” Miller said.
“We had an Archive and Special Collections in name only before Melissa came.” VandeBurgt is assisted in her efforts by a team of interns, and calls working with them her favorite part of the job. Natalie Schneider has worked with VandeBurgt for three years, first as an intern, then as a student worker, and now as a fulltime Senior Library Technical Assistant. Her favorite memory of working with VandeBurgt is installing the exhibit on display in the Gallery this spring – “UNDERCURRENT.”
They had gone to the artist’s house to pick up the collection, and although they returned to the Archives at the end of the working day, they stayed for hours excitedly bantering back and forth about how to display the pieces.
“Even though she is the expert and the department head, my ideas were valid to her and she wanted to hear them,” Schneider said. “She is incredibly kind and patient.” Every member of VandeBurgt’s nine person team started as an intern. “I feel like it’s my job to help them trust their instincts,” VandeBurgt said. “I fail in front of them a million times every day, because you don’t get to do something new, you don’t get to innovate, you don’t get to push boundaries if you’re terrified to fail – because you’re never going to try.”
Students and faculty are beginning to play more of a role at the Archives, with classes coming in to use primary resources and in return using their academic specialties to help VandeBurgt catalog items. According to VandeBurgt, FGCU’s future may include hiring an archivist to focus on FGCU’s past. That individual will decide how to best capture the university’s history as more and more of it is created online and through email versus physical documents. “We don’t think about our emails and letters and personal notes as being valuable, but in 100 years, they will give an entire snapshot of what this university was like when it was only 20 years old,” VandeBurgt said. In 100 years, it will tell people a great deal about what we were, and what motivated us.” Whatever the future holds, VandeBurgt wants to see more people take advantage of FGCU’s Special Collections. “These aren’t mine, these aren’t the Library’s, these are yours,” VandeBurgt said. “You own them. Our job is just to take care of them and preserve them so that your children can see them, too.”