FEATURE : Mining for Stories

Throughout history, humans have collected objects: tools to help them in their daily survival, talismans believed to have magical powers, works of art, discarded pieces that tell the history of a lost civilization. Consider the following anecdote. On his way to work, a friend of mine glanced on the ground and saw a broken penny. He picked it up to examine it more closely and without much thought, he decided to keep his find. Several months later, the same friend was crossing an intersection in downtown Baltimore when a glint of copper caught his eye. He reached out and whisked the object off the ground while hurrying to the curb. Examining it more closely, he realized that he had found the missing piece of the penny he had collected several months before. As he joined the coin together, my friend saw that the missing half contained the phrase, “In God We Trust.” Suddenly, the penny took on added significance and raised new questions about the previous owner. Who tore the penny apart? Why did he do it? How did he do it? Was this a response to a personal crisis?

Sometimes, we can only speculate about the narratives behind an object. Several years ago I bought a vellum-bound prayer book dating to 1720. The first few pages have burn marks on the edges. I imagine that the book’s original owner was a priest who was reading by candlelight. Perhaps he dozed off and was startled awake by the smell of burning paper. I picture him beating out the flames, closing the book, and going back to sleep. The book carries the evidence of that simple scene into the present day. All we need to do is look and imagine.

Not long ago, I was doing research in the archives at Frostburg State University in preparation for their upcoming capital campaign. My colleagues and I came across several old ledger books that recorded early donations to the University. As I read through the list, I was surprised to see hundreds of nickel, dime, and quarter donations. The ledgers were a record of the small sacrifices of the FSU community—many of them hard-working coal miners—who dreamed of a better life for their children. Inspired, we realized that this powerful story should be told in the campaign case statement.

What stories are waiting in your college archives to be told? Is there a tree, a stone, or a bench in a forgotten corner of campus that preserves a powerful story? Take a look around. You might be surprised what treasures you discover.

Contributed by Domenica