Meehan, Special Collections Library head, aims to connect visitors with stories

February 22, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Jennifer Meehan, Penn State University Libraries’ new head of Special Collections, believes the stories found within these rare and unique collections have the potential to be a force for transformational change within the Libraries and the University.

“In all that we do to build and steward collections and promote access and learning, I believe that Penn State University Libraries’ Special Collections has that potential, for the people and communities we serve,” she said. “Penn State’s unique structure as one University with many campuses across the Commonwealth and online, and its vision for impact, present compelling opportunities for extending the reach of Special Collections at Penn State and beyond. I see exciting possibilities for sharing more of its offerings with a broader audience and positioning Special Collections at the core of the Libraries, connecting people to stories that have meaning for their lives and work.”

“Stories are at the heart of archives, and storytelling is at the heart of archival research and discovery. I want to share the stories of Special Collections with the Penn State community near and far, and empower individuals to tell their own stories.”

– Jennifer Meehan, head of Special Collections, Penn State University Libraries

Meehan is in charge of the Eberly Family Special Collections and coordinates the Libraries’ special collections and archives across Penn State’s Commonwealth Campuses. She notes that stewards of Special Collections across the Commonwealth work collaboratively with University and community members to help preserve Penn State’s cultural heritage for future generations through the University Archives.

An important component of Special Collections, the University Archives holds historical records preserving institutional memory and adds materials documenting campus life on an ongoing basis. Special Collections also encompasses historical and manuscript collections and rare books, all of which advance faculty research pursuits, document regional cultures past and present, and inspire students and scholars of all ages.

Meehan’s academic research interests focus on the role of story and modes of storytelling in outreach, advocacy and engagement with archives and special collections. Her career has focused on expanding researcher discovery and access and engaging students and community members with academic libraries’ hidden collections. Her recent scholarship includes a book chapter titled “Archival Intangibles: Empowerment Through Story and Meaning,” which will appear in the forthcoming volume “Archival Values: A Festschrift in Honor of Mark Greene.”

She was drawn to the field of archives and special collections by a love of learning and creativity.

“I didn’t have exposure to archives as an undergrad. It was a mystery to me, the idea of archives and what they make possible. But it captured my imagination,” Meehan said. “Through my work, I’ve come to appreciate that stories are at the heart of archives, and storytelling is at the heart of archival research and discovery. I want to share the stories of Special Collections with the Penn State community near and far, and empower individuals to tell their own stories.”

closeup looking into glass-enclosed exhibit case

One way the Eberly Family Special Collections encourages members of the University Park campus and the public to engage with its holdings is through its seasonal exhibitions, such as “The Secret Life of Girls and Women,  on display through Sept. 1. This display case holds an artist’s book by Naomi Nye, titled “Sometimes I Pretend: A Poem,” which hides a poem inside a box, as well as pairs of Paris’ Folies Bergère cabaret theater tickets and programs, one program signed by noted Jazz Age dancer and cabaret performer Josephine Baker, pictured. Baker served the French Resistance during World War II by secretly collecting information from German officials, which she sometimes wrote in invisible ink on her sheet music. The latter items are from the Charles L. Blockson Collection on Josephine Baker, one of many topics of research interest in the the Charles L. Blockson Collection of African-Americana and the African Diaspora.

IMAGE: Jill Shockey, Penn State University Libraries

 

Meehan arrived at Penn State at the end of January and brings archival experience and education spanning the coasts of North America. Most recently associate director of Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library in Atlanta and its interim director from March to October 2018, she pursued her education on the West Coast. She earned undergraduate degrees in English and film studies at the University of California, Berkeley and a master’s degree in archival studies at the University of British Columbia.

Her archival career on the East Coast began as manuscript archivist at Virginia Tech’s Digital Library and Archives, then as a project archivist at the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. Meehan spent six years at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, first as accessioning archivist, then as head of processing for its manuscript unit. She served a nearly equal tenure at Emory.

She also has been very active in the Society of American Archivists throughout her career and has served on the editorial board of its publication, The American Archivist, since 2011, and as vice chair and chair of two of its sections during that same time.

“Throughout my career, I have been guided by a deep intellectual curiosity and creativity, a dedication to service, and a desire to make a difference,” Meehan said. “This spirit informs my view of the creative power of archives and my vision for Penn State’s Special Collections of connecting more people to more stories.”

Energized by the idea of turning Special Collections “inside-out,” Meehan notes the trend that many archives are transforming their processes to make more materials available and new experiences and encounters possible. At academic libraries, special emphasis is placed on encouraging undergraduate students’ engagement with special collections, from supporting faculty instruction with rare and unique primary sources to enhancing the undergraduate extracurricular experience.

photo of open flat file drawer showing oversize photocopy of handwritten official document

The University Libraries’ Special Collections includes the University Archives, where important documents, photographs, films and other artifacts of Penn State history are housed. Just like the original version in the University Archives, this oversize photocopy of the first page of Penn State’s charter — signed on Feb. 22, 1855 — begins: “An Act to incorporate the Farmers High School of Pennsylvania / Section I / Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in General Assembly met....” The full text of the charter is on the University Libraries website, part of the Penn State University Park Campus History Collection.

IMAGE: Jill Shockey, Penn State University Libraries

 

Students are encouraged to ponder over library exhibits, attend special events such as invited speaker presentations, and to interact with archivists, whether in the classroom or reading room. In-depth opportunities are available for students, too, through the use of Special Collections primary sources for course assignments and semester-long internships.

“There is great potential and opportunity for students to discover aspects of their own lives and experiences and to learn about the lives and experiences of others through examining our University and historical collections. Students’ stories throughout the generations are represented here, and student storytelling is made possible here,” Meehan said. “Scholars and community members have similar opportunities through research across the breadth of collections ranging from labor history to regional culture to the African-American experience to arts and literature.

“At the same time,” she added, “we need to make sure we are documenting new and diverse voices and being aware of gaps, or silences, in the historical record. We always look for ways to document stories that aren’t captured in existing materials, through a variety of initiatives, such as oral history, to help document important stories that otherwise wouldn’t exist for the benefit of future generations.”

“The concepts of one University and one Libraries — how we work together and collaborate across boundaries, campuses and institutions in and beyond the Big Ten — are inspiring.”

– Jennifer Meehan

Most of all, Meehan has been struck by the scope and scale of Penn State and the Libraries, and the vital role the University Libraries plays in each community it serves across campuses and online.

“The concepts of one University and one Libraries — how we work together and collaborate across boundaries, campuses and institutions in and beyond the Big Ten — are inspiring,” Meehan said. “In all of my initial encounters and interactions, I have felt a lot of energy and enthusiasm for what Penn State has to offer. I want people to feel that energetic about what Special Collections has to offer, and to understand the transformative potential I see. I look forward to partnering with colleagues across the University and in our communities to help make that a reality.”

For more information about Special Collections at the University Libraries, visit https://libraries.psu.edu/specialcollections. Its normal hours of operation, also posted online, are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and until 8 p.m. on Wednesdays, and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays while Penn State classes are in session.

Last Updated February 22, 2019