Renae Rapp recently joined the CCNY Libraries Archives & Special Collections division as their new Assistant Archivist. Professor Rapp works alongside the Library's archivist, Professor Sydney Van Nort, and her team on tasks that include (but, are not limited to) processing, digitizing, organizing, and presenting the college’s vast archival collection located on the 5th floor of the Cohen Library. Renae was most recently an archivist at SUNY Maritime and, prior to that, worked at various organizations including SUNY Stony Brook and the New York State Archives in Albany where she also attended SUNY’s University at Albany and received graduate degrees in Library Science and Public History. I sat down with Professor Rapp in January 2023 to talk about her experience as an archivist at City College. But first, I asked for reading recommendations.
What are you reading?
Right now I’m wrapping up on Octavia Butler’s The Parable series. I read Parable of the Sower and right now I am reading Parable of Talents and it’s really good. She was one of the most prominent African-American women in sci-fi. I recommend her. It is very different too. Most sci-fis, especially very traditional sci-fis are in space, there’s robots, there are spaceships, it's very high tech, very very far in the future, but this series is set in 2023. She wrote this in the '80s and the '90s. It’s very focused on climate. They’re still living on the planet, but California is practically under water, and there are fires everywhere. It never rains. It’s kind of terrifying reading it now when California is already aflame and drowning.
What was your journey to becoming an archivist?
I was an undergrad, living in Texas. That is where I got my bachelors from (West Texas A&M University). I had an internship with the art director of the Panhandle Plains Historical Museum, the largest museum of Panhandle history in The Panhandle - which is a Texas thing, they always brag about that. He wanted me to work in all the departments. I worked in the archives. I think the archivist had just been hired not too long before I started there. I started working with this artist’s collection of postcards. I would be at the archives all day and I would see them bring things in. At the time, a company called the Remnant Trust, had these rare books out, they traveled around. That was the first time I held a really early edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and I thought that was the coolest thing ever. I just happened to be in the room and I saw all these great materials. Then I started working in archives at the college too and that was really fun.
Why do colleges have archives?
Like any institution, there needs to be some record of its history for lots of reasons--for research or to use for publicity or advertising. It’s also a good legal backup. If you make any changes to policies you can look back to see if you are able to or what those policies used to be and other things like who’s worked there before. For colleges, it's a really great record of the history of the college itself, especially a primary record of it. People really like photographs, things that are tangible. Bringing that out into light and having students, faculty and other users see that makes the college a bit more personal than just an institution of education.
Say a professor - it could be a history or language professor - wanted to expose their class to a primary source in the archive, what would you recommend?
I don’t think archives need to be limited to just the humanities. I definitely think Sciences and other STEM departments can use archives, even our special collections. That’s tracing the history of something and it is still relevant and it can inspire something else. I think, for our archives, the best thing to do is just email us and try to do pre-research to see what we have because a lot is not on our website yet. We have a lot more in the back. Start with a question just like any other research you do and see where that goes, where that can grow. It’s a lot of communication between us and the faculty members to get the right combination of things.
Are there any must-see items that you found? Any treasures that you might have found?
In our display case in the archives, there's the plates of the different buildings. I think that's really cool because it shows buildings that are no longer on campus. There is also something very old school about them. These aren't plates that you eat off of, these are display-only. It kind of makes sense in the archives because this is what we do, we display things. I think those are really fun. Recently Sydney has shown me we have three cannonballs from the Civil War. We're not sure why we have them, they are just sitting in a drawer and they're really heavy. These are like genuine cannonballs.
Oh, that’s wild.
Why are these here? We can only conjecture there was some person related to the college that had this relationship to the Civil War and they had these in honor of them. That's pretty loose though…we just have these cannonballs.
It's really funny. It's great.
What project are you working on?
I'm working on lots of projects. I just started my first processing project going through the collection. This one is of a faculty member from the Art Department, his name was Jacob Rothenberg and he actually did a lot of research on the Elgin Marbles. I think we have casts of them. But it’s really interesting because it’s a lot of his research on it.
What are Elgin Marbles?
They're part of the Parthenon. Those are the Elgin Marbles. [The Elgin Marbles, also known as The Parthenon Sculptures, were collected and sent to the United Kingdom between 1801 and 1812. The sculptures have been part of The British Museum's collection ever since. ]
We have one back here, I think.
Yes. We have a couple of those (casts) and that was his big research project. It's funny seeing research from the 60s and 70s. It’s all handwritten notes and he would send letters to curators of the British Museum. He would go and visit them and do all of his research. There are copies of all of these articles and all these things.
Yes. It's fun seeing how a person had lived through what they leave behind. That's what I like about working in archives, it's kind of like being a detective and you have to, like, learn how to read minds. Looking through his collection you can get a sense of what kind of a person this person was. Hopefully those will be available soon, when I am done.
It's an ongoing thing.
Archiving? Oh, yes.
There's just so much.
A lot of people, when they see an archive for the first time, they're really overwhelmed and they (say) “It's so much work.” and I always say “No. It's job security… It's going to take a long time.” That’s a career. It's job security.
The City College Archives & Special Collections Division is located on the 5th Floor of the Cohen Library.
Visit the Archive's landing page at library.ccny.cuny.edu/archives to learn more about the collection and to contact Professor Rapp and Professor Van Nort.