Patrick Quinn, Archivist, and the "House" that Patrick Built
Diaries from the Alaskan explorer who helped convince Seward to purchase our 49th state. The ransom notes from Leopold and Loeb to victim Bobby Frank’s parents. The papers of Winifred Ward, the founder of creative dramatics. These are just a few of the treasures now held in the dimly lit underbelly of the old Deering Library, the place known as Northwestern University Archives. But perhaps the best-known treasure, Patrick Quinn—the archivist responsible for collecting all the other treasures—is leaving the Archives in June, retiring after 34 years. For a few hours recently, we captured Quinn in his lair. The inveterate storyteller talked about his early life and the place he has built from just a few filing cabinets into the collective historical memory of Northwestern University.
Northwestern University historian Carl Smith was quoted in an earlier article in Northwestern magazine as saying that you are the spirit of the collection; that it’s not just information to you, it’s human experience.
From the standpoint that you build it from scratch and spend three and a half decades doing it, the collection becomes a permeable membrane. It’s hard to separate what is you from what is the collection. I can say without any degree of braggadocio that I probably know more about Northwestern history than any other human being who ever lived and probably who ever will.
Tell us about your own past and your family.
I’ve been an archivist for 42 years. I was doing graduate work in history at the University of Wisconsin—Madison but I needed a job. I was married, broke, and had a daughter. So I went to the employment office there at the university. They had a job as an archivist and I was hired.
So the passion came after you got the job?
Yes. I was raised by my grandparents and bachelor uncle in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. My grandfather was a plumber. He put in the toilets of the rich who lived on the lakeshore. He and my uncle both died when I was in high school, leaving me and my 80-year-old grandma. I got a job as a letter carrier which provided me the money to go to college.
I hear you were quite the activist back then.
I was very active in the Civil Rights Movement. I dropped out of graduate school to go south. In Selma, I was the speaker after Martin Luther King.
You were what?
My speech was not as exciting as his. It was 43 years ago today, March 25, 1965. My speech was, “Will the busses from New York meet over behind the Alabama Public Safety Department, the busses from Chicago meet behind the State Capital to the right….”
Did you ever see the documentary Eyes on the Prize? I have a cameo in it. My kids said, “Dad, that can’t be you. That guy is thin.” I went to the closet and showed them the sport coat I was wearing in the film.
Were you afraid in Selma?
Yeah, I almost got killed three times by Ku Klux Klan types. The first day I was there, volunteers were put up in the black churches in town. But you had to walk through a white area. A bunch of us were walking on the side of the road when somebody screamed, “Look out!” And a big Buick tried to run us all down. A couple of people were knocked down but nobody was seriously hurt. The driver couldn’t get too close to us or he’d go into a wall.
[Other incidents were: being in a car repeatedly rammed by another car whose occupants were flashing a crow bar and a baseball bat; and arriving at the roadside scene of a crime, minutes after civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo was murdered by the KKK.]
Arriving at Northwestern nine years later must have seemed a different kind of challenge.
Although University Archives had been around since 1935, it was a very, very modest operation. When I came here in 1974, there were two four-drawer filing cabinets of biographic material of former presidents and faculty members. A lot of time had been spent clipping Chicago newspaper articles, pasting them on pieces of paper, and saving them. But there were very few of what archivists call “organic records” of an office, such as the incoming and outgoing correspondence.
The first thing you have to do is make yourself and the Archives known. [Revered history professor] Richard Leopold was the chair of the faculty university archives committee—he had been an archivist during World War II for the Navy. He used his clout to get me onto the agenda of various faculty meetings. I spent hours and hours speaking to faculty members, telling them what they should be doing with their records.
In order to start getting papers of the faculty you had to acquire a magnet collection, one which will draw others to donate their papers. So I went to Winifred Ward, founder of the field of creative dramatics [a teaching method in which children create plays out of their imaginations]. I told her a record of her career should be preserved for future generations. It wasn’t a hard sell: she thought it was a good idea. Shortly afterward, she had a stroke and could no longer speak. We had an exhibit of her papers here in the library and she came in a wheelchair. It was gratifying to see the sparkle in her eye. That was my first magnet collection, and then it was off to the races.
Are there any “big fish” faculty members whose papers got away?
The great professor of British literature Richard Ellmann, the biographer of James Joyce and William Butler Yeats. I really tried. I was in England in 1987 and he was living at Oxford. I made an appointment to visit him there and give him a pitch. The day I was to meet with him, he died. And his daughters ended up selling his papers to the University of Tulsa…. I have never paid one cent for anything here. It has all been donated.
If you could have lunch with one character from Northwestern’s past, who would it be?
Henry Wade Rogers, one of the greatest Northwestern presidents. He’s more responsible than anyone else for transforming the University from a loose federation of schools into a modern, progressive university. In order to do this, he had to clip the wings of some very powerful deans of the professional schools. Eventually, he paid the price for it and the Board of Trustees let him go. He became a very distinguished federal judge on the East coast.
Are there any secrets you can’t share with us about Northwestern’s past?
Yes, there are many, many secrets I can’t share. About one third of our holdings are restricted: tenure decisions, the records of the most recent presidents, anything sensitive. Northwestern is a private university so it is not subject to the same Sunshine Laws [federal and state laws that require certain records be made available to the public] as public universities.
We have locked in fireproof safes our most valuable documents, like the Leopold/Loeb ransom notes. But all of our records are under lock and key, behind closed doors.
How did you happen to obtain the Leopold/Loeb ransom notes?
[The donor was] a person on the law school faculty who was involved in the case. He had conducted psychiatric exams of the two.
What are other valuable items?
We have the diaries of Robert Kennicott and Henry Martyn Bannister, naturalists and explorers of the Alaskan territory in the mid-1800s. Unfortunately, Kennicott died over there, but Bannister returned and recommended to Secretary of State William Seward that the United States purchase Alaska. This is his paperweight. His daughter, Ruth Bannister, gave it to me.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen since you’ve been here?
The faculty has gotten much younger since I’ve gotten older. [Laughter] When I came, most of the faculty were in their mid to late 60s. Now the faculty seem like students; it’s hard to differentiate. When I came, I quickly met some of the newer young faculty who now are old veterans, like [historians] Carl Smith and Henry Binford, who have been my pals for the past three and a half decades.
Some of the early faculty I met were legends, like [English professor] Bergen Evans, one of the first academics to pioneer the quiz show on television. His show, [Down You Go], was broadcast nationally. His lectures were extraordinary. He filled the biggest auditoriums on campus. Also, Dick Leopold and Clarence Ver Steeg were already well known nationally, Leopold for his book ["Problems in American History"] with Arthur Link and Ver Steeg for his writings on the American Revolution. All of a sudden, I got here and began working with them.
How have the students changed?
In the wake of the ’60s, students were interested in having fun. They were not as anxious to get good grades and get into graduate school and succeed. They were much more laid back.
Are there as many written records now as there were back then when people wrote memoirs and diaries?
Ironically, there is more writing going on today—because of e-mail—than there was back then. It’s too early to tell how much of that will be saved and in what form, whether people will print out the copies and save them on paper or on disks or not save them at all. I’m not saying this is better writing. Certainly text-messaging is a low-grade mode of communication. Given how easy e-mailing is, there is probably less thought that goes into composing an e-mail message than a letter.
If Crosscurrents were to do a story on letters home, freshmen arriving on campus and sharing their first impressions with their parents, you would have some of those from days gone by. Would you have them from today’s students?
You wouldn’t, because students don’t consider them worth saving.
What about photographs, with the arrival of the digital camera?
That’s another irony. We have a massive number of photographs from the past, about 800,000, which we’ve spent considerable time accumulating. So we have a very good visual documentary record of the University. With the advent of digital photography, more photos are being taken than ever before because it’s so inexpensive. But we have very few photos coming in now to the Archives. We are going to have to make an appeal and set up a digital repository.
What is the impact technology has made on the job of archivist?
It has doubled, tripled, quadrupled our job. In 1974 , we used to get written inquiries for information by postal mail. They would fill one archival box, one third of a cubic foot, per year. Now 98 percent of our inquiries come by e-mail. The printed-out versions of these fill one box a month. That’s the kind of pressure that new technology has placed on our office. And we haven’t had a staff increase since 1976.
What’s next for you? Does being an archivist prompt you to write your own memoirs?
My kids [daughters Abra and Rachel, both teachers in the San Francisco Bay area] tell me I should. I might.
I think of myself as a writer. I’ve written four novels. One’s been published, a satire on detective novels but I’m not very proud of it. I should try to get the last novel I wrote in decent shape and submit the three to publishers—I think they are publishable. The first one, Down Time, is a novel essentially based on the radical years in Madison.
And I want to travel. My wife, Mary Janzen Quinn, is retiring as manager of public programming at the Newberry Library the same day I am retiring. We always go to Europe in May.
What would you like alumni to know about Archives? Are they welcome to come and browse?
Absolutely. It would be one of the great experiences of their lives. It’s one of the great joys working in this job when people come in and see what we’ve got. There’s enough in here for anybody who has any interest in Northwestern.Back to top