Campus & Community

An archivist with an eye for neglected history

‘Invisible’ achievements, student engagement, Legacy of Slavery among new leader’s priorities

8 min read
Virginia (Ginny) Hunt.

There has also been a “philosophical shift in archival practice at Harvard,” said Virginia “Ginny” Hunt. “Now, compared to years or decades ago, we are focusing our attention on the need for inclusivity.”

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Virginia “Ginny” Hunt brings 15 years of experience with Harvard University Archives to her first full academic year as University Archivist, the leadership position she assumed last winter. In a recent interview she talked about the dual role that comes with the job, outlined how students can engage with the archives, and discussed priorities for her tenure, including a robust effort to elevate lesser-known aspects of Harvard’s history. The interview was edited for clarity and length.


Virginia Hunt

GAZETTE:  What does it mean to be the University Archivist?

HUNT:  You wear two hats. One, you are overseeing the historical records and collections documenting the University, and two, you are responsible for management and stewardship of its institutional record-keeping.

The first piece is maintaining collections about the organization or related to it. In Harvard’s case, our 400-year history parallels the history of the U.S., so our institutional archive is also an incredibly rich resource for learning about and engaging with American history. We have collection items from the early 1600s, like the University charter, all the way up to the present day: for example, a collection we began in 2007 of most of Harvard’s archived websites. Maintaining these collections means our expert staff work to preserve the materials in the collections, both paper and digital records. We also have staff who work with educators and students to provide classroom or research access to the materials, and some talented folks who design exhibitions and programs to engage the public in the history of Harvard.

The other piece of my work is overseeing management and stewardship of present-day institutional records in systems we use every day, like Sharepoint. Staff work to make sure that these records are accessible for internal administrative needs, that folks in our community know and follow University records policies and laws, and that privacy and confidentiality are protected. But really, managing Harvard’s institutional record is baked into everything we do at HUA — from creating policies and advising on appropriate record-keeping to assisting scholars and researchers using our collections.

GAZETTE: As we start a new academic year, how would you encourage students and others to use Harvard’s archives?

HUNT: We are exploring a lot of avenues with this. We partner actively with faculty, for instance, to host class visits in which students engage directly with collection material. One great thing about HUA is that we aren’t affiliated with just one School, so we see students from across the University. In the last year, we have had groups visit from the Graduate School of Education, Harvard Law School, and the Extension School, to name a few.

Other ways students might be interested in engaging with the archives are exhibitions involving student groups, like our current exhibit on the Harvard Krokodiloes, or projects in collaboration with student-adjacent programs. Right now, we’re working on programming with the Harvard University Native American Program and their archives.

GAZETTE: Do you have thoughts on how the role of University Archivist has changed over the years? How is what you do different from what HUA did in, say, the mid-19th century?

HUNT: This work has definitely changed over the years, partly because there are areas that have changed in archival practice that are really visible at Harvard.

One is obviously technology — our early records are all paper-based, they were for 300-plus years, and then in the late 20th century digital technologies come into play. Record-keeping has now transitioned to a predominantly digital environment, so knowing how to manage records has changed. With this digital focus, we also have to pay more attention to information security and confidentiality, working with HUIT and other offices to make sure we’re keeping records safe.

“In recent years, there has been a shift in understanding what Harvard’s history actually looked like, compared to how earlier histories of Harvard portrayed it.”

GAZETTE: Are there ways priorities have changed?

HUNT: As there have been changes in the day-to-day work caused by technological advances, there has also been a philosophical shift in archival practice at Harvard. In our HUA mission, we talk about having comprehensive and inclusive records, but up until recently that was about having the “right” records — for instance, collecting the records of the most senior University administrators or the archives of the most well-known scholars.

In recent years, there has been a shift in understanding what Harvard’s history actually looked like, compared to how earlier histories of Harvard portrayed it. I sometimes compare it to a scene in the movie “Hidden Figures,” where a Black woman mathematician in the 1960s, Katherine Johnson, is told to put her white male supervisor’s name on a report even though she’s doing the work for it. Things like that really happened, and they happened here at Harvard.

Now, compared to years or decades ago, we are focusing our attention on the need for inclusivity. We’re trying to recognize what was previously “invisible” work and make sure that it is gathered at the University Archives, recognized, and surfaced.

GAZETTE: Do you have examples of lesser-known material that you want to do more with?

HUNT: One “lightbulb moment” for me was several years ago, when I came across letters from Booker T. Washington as he was starting the Tuskegee Institute. He was writing to Harvard’s President Lowell, which is why we have the letters, but seeing them here was a reminder that our archives don’t just hold materials “about Harvard” in a narrow sense.

The work done on the Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery report is another example. Archives staff played a key role in the production of that report — providing sources for the report’s information and helping the researchers way-find through the records. At HUA we always knew that the information was here; our job is to help people connect to it to do this important work.

“Last year, we finished a seven-year project called ‘Worlds of Change,’ digitizing 700,000 records dating from 1600 to 1800. I’d like to do something similar for the 19th and early 20th centuries …”

GAZETTE: Are there other ways you are focusing on making the archives more inclusive?

HUNT: Yes — we can also be proactive when it comes to what we collect and preserve. Traditionally, the archives focused on collecting materials from people at the highest level of “importance” to capture Harvard’s history — University leaders, student leaders, successful alumni, elite community members. But that is a very privileged group of people. Historically, it’s been wealthy and educated white men, and more recently white women too, but people of color have not been — and still aren’t — represented widely at leadership levels. We’ve decided that we are going to balance this by privileging other viewpoints, because we know they are equally important to the story of Harvard.

One recent example was our work with the first Black managing editor of Harvard’s yearbook, Lee Smith ’69, to bring in a collection of his photographs documenting student activism — particularly Black students and their engagement in critical issues of the 1960s. There are photos of a memorial service for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., of students advocating for a Department of African and Afro-American Studies at Harvard, and of a student strike in 1969.

GAZETTE: Besides this important work around underrepresented narratives, what are some other key priorities under your leadership?

HUNT: We anticipate a major a shift in records management to emphasize digital records and virtual services. With Harvard Library and many other University stakeholders, we are working to create systems for stewarding, managing, preserving, and collecting University records in a variety of formats. We still have a ways to go, but it’s an exciting time to be working in archives as we figure out how to meet these needs.

Related to that is a focus on digitizing more historical collections. Last year, we finished a seven-year project called “Worlds of Change,” digitizing 700,000 records dating from 1600 to 1800. I’d like to do something similar for the 19th and early 20th centuries, which would create fantastic research opportunities, as that was when Harvard evolved from a small religious College to a world-class research University. I also hope we will be able to work on enhancing access to the materials and records cited in the Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery report.

All of this is about opening more of our collections up and maximizing research and access. Before the pandemic, we were already digitizing content and creating solutions for accessibility, but we ramped that up out of necessity when we went remote. Now that we have opened our world up to people who didn’t have an access point to engage with it before, I’d like to build on that momentum.