C'est 'La Vie'

Lauren Ingram
March 29, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The year is 1890. Benjamin Harrison is president of the United States, the two-step is all the rage in dance halls across the country and Arthur Conan Doyle has just introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes. At Penn State, for the first time in the school’s 35 years, a group of student editors sets out to chronicle what it means to be a Penn Stater.

The result: the University’s first yearbook, “La Vie.”

Unlike the color-infused volumes of today, the pages of the premier edition were black and white and filled with hand-drawn illustrations, advertisements for now-defunct local businesses, and membership lists for such student organizations as the Washington Literary Society, Banjo and Guitar Club, and a Mutual Admiration Society (of which there were only two members).

Over the decades, the yearbook established itself as an annual tradition, documenting the experiences of students as they lived through the growth of the University and such historical events as the Great Depression, two world wars, space travel, the civil rights and women’s liberation movements, and more.

And while the times — and technology used to create “La Vie” — continue to change, each year a new bunch of students sets out to tell the story of Penn State.

“Our mission is to help preserve the University’s history and create something special for students to remember their time here,” said Kelcie Guns, the yearbook’s current student life editor. “The process begins at the very beginning of the school year, when the yearbook editors get together to decide what events we want to highlight and to choose each writer’s and photographer’s assignments.”

This year, “La Vie” (which is still student-run after more than 100 years) is chronicling student life from the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts through graduation, featuring senior portraits along with stories and magazine-style photo spreads for the Homecoming Parade, Career Fair, Dance Marathon and Penn State athletics, as well as a variety of other campus events — like Movin’ On and Relay for Life.

The club is divided into two groups: a business operations team that takes responsibility for yearbook sales, ads, and social media and an editorial team that focuses on photography, senior portraits, copy, and design. However, unlike Penn State’s first yearbook editors, who likely created the book by hand and had it printed on an old-fashioned printing press, today’s staff’s process is almost entirely digital.

During the many months the editorial team spends attending campus events, interviewing, taking photos and writing copy, they use Google Drive to corral content and update their page ladder, which is a rundown of every spread, assignment and due date in the 400-page book.

They also use an online layout tool called Yearbook Avenue, similar to Adobe InDesign, to design and add pages to the yearbook, paying close attention to the book’s theme, graphics, colors, spacing and layout. Ideally, the editors finish the overall design in the fall and spend the remainder of the school year dropping photos and copying content into the empty fields in the software. In spring, when the last photos from graduation are imported, the digital file is sent to the printer to be bound and transformed into a book.  

Though creating yearbooks relies on a specific set of skills, the club welcomes students from any academic background who wish to gain experience in publishing, journalism, graphic design, photography or business, according to Lee Ahern, the yearbook club’s faculty adviser and an associate professor of advertising and public relations in the College of Communications.

As this year’s student life editor, Guns, who is studying English and digital and print journalism, joined the club not only because of her passion for yearbooks (she participated in her high school’s club), but to learn more about publishing and journalism. 

“I really like the editorial process and working toward a final product, so I think the yearbook club is a great way for me to get experience writing and editing,” she said. “Plus, as students, our stories and photos are being printed in a publication that represents Penn State and will, hopefully, be around forever.”

For Kathleen McGovern, the yearbook club’s business operations manager who is studying public relations, getting the opportunity to market and operate what is basically a small business — whether she’s balancing budgets or working with local advertisers — has been invaluable. 

One of her most important responsibilities is managing yearbook sales each spring, a prospect that with the rise of social media can be challenging. After working at “La Vie” for three years, McGovern says she’s seeing more and more of her peers using Instagram, Facebook and other social media tools to document their college memories.

“Yearbooks are a much-loved tradition, but they’re trying to find their way into students’ hearts in the digital age,” Ahern said. “However, as our lives become increasingly digital and we store our photos almost exclusively on our phones or memory sticks, ‘La Vie’ remains one of the few remaining physical manifestations of students’ experiences here at Penn State.”

Much like the comeback of vinyl records, yearbooks have a nostalgic charm, and Ahern says the club is working on ways to help students feel even more connected to “La Vie” by incorporating user-generated content from social media and online photo contests into this year’s and future editions.

As college yearbook sales decline across the nation, some universities have stopped printing them entirely. However, Guns believes there will always be a place for “La Vie” at Penn State.

“The yearbook represents who we are as a school and how we’ve changed and grown over the years. It’s a time capsule to look back on old friends and favorite places on campus and to show future generations what life was like when we were in college,” she said. “There’s just something about holding ‘La Vie’ in your hands and turning the pages that an online photo gallery can’t compete with.”

Back in 1890, the yearbook editors wrote in the first edition, “In presenting this, the first annual from its Alma Mater, the class of Ninety hopes to establish a custom which shall be followed by each succeeding class […] the desire has been to enlighten as well as entertain.”

126 years later, some things are still the same.

For more stories about IT at Penn State, visit news.it.psu.edu

  • Senior portrait photo session for yearbook

    Each year, the yearbook club coordinates portrait sessions for graduating seniors.

    IMAGE: Lauren Ingram
  • Stack of yearbooks

    "La Vie" has been an annual Penn State tradition since 1890.

    IMAGE: Lauren Ingram
  • Kathleen McGovern, business operations manager of the yearbook club, looks for a yearbook on a shelf.

    Kathleen McGovern, business operations manager, helps coordinate yearbook sales.

    IMAGE: Lauren Ingram
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Last Updated April 19, 2017