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Telling stories and touching history

Information sciences graduate student Joseph Porto searches through the scrapbook of a student who attended the university 100 years ago.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — I slowly turn each page of Florence Lee’s large paper scrapbook, making sure not to wrinkle any of the items she placed inside. Its contents offer a snapshot of student life in the early 20th century at the University of Illinois: a laminated orange and blue button from a homecoming football game, a brochure from the Anti-Cigarette League of America, ribbons and tickets from Dad’s Day events and dozens of photographs of scenes around campus, including personal photographs of Florence Lee with her family and friends. All of these items were either glued or, in the case of some of the flat paper items, had their corners tucked into angled slots cut into the pages. The items that Florence Lee placed in this scrapbook come from her undergraduate years at the University of Illinois – 1917-20. This memento offers a window into that time.

I’m in the University’s Student Life and Culture Archives, searching for images of Busey Hall, or the “Women’s Residence Hall,” as it was called back then. Eventually I find what I’m looking for: a photograph of Busey Hall. However, this is not an ordinary photograph: Hundreds of people are crowded in front of the building, all of them wearing flat-topped, military-style hats. A marching band sits in front of the capped individuals, encircling a flagpole. Their silver tuba and trombone bells shine brightly in the sepia-tone photograph. Someone, perhaps Lee herself, printed a caption in thick white ink across the middle of the photo. It reads:

Presentation of Womans’ Residence Hall to Aviators
“Raising the flag.” Nov, 14, 17!

I think to myself, “Jackpot!” Luckily, Florence didn’t glue this photograph, and instead chose to place it using cuts made on the page. I remove it from its page, scan it into my computer and lightly place it back in its original location.

This item will help illustrate an online interactive map I’m creating that chronicles events on campus during World War I. This photograph, in particular, illustrates the sacrifices students made to accommodate the soldiers-in-training who moved to campus, including the university’s female students, who waited an extra year before moving into their newly built residence hall.

My work is part of a bigger project. Mapping History at the University of Illinois is a collection of interactive maps that illustrate the university’s rich 150-year history. I hope these maps will connect students, faculty and staff to the history of our campus, telling us new stories about the buildings and spaces we interact with every day.

Editor’s note:
To see more of Porto’s interactive map, go to:
World War I and the University of Illinois: 1917-1920 Story Map
The U. of I. Archives acquired Florence Lee's scrapbook in 1991, a few months after her death at age 91.

Photo caption: Information sciences graduate student Joseph Porto searches through the scrapbook of a student who attended the university 100 years ago.

Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Story by Joseph Porto, School of Information Sciences Graduate Student, reposted from the Illinois News Bureau (February 6, 2018).