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A new glimpse into the past

By Claire Carlson '12
July 26, 2010

Earlier this year, as Vivian Engebrit browsed through images on the St. Olaf College digital archives Web site in search of information about her great-grandfather, she stumbled across a photo with a familiar face.

In this 1910 photo — one of the many images that Vivian Engebrit donated to St. Olaf — fishing buddies and early college leaders (from left) P.G. Schmidt, O.G. Felland, Carl Mellby, and Ole Rolvaag show off their catch.

There, in an image that included children of the Kildahls, Mohns, and Fellands — early leaders of the college — was her great-uncle, “Butts” Lee. As Engebrit looked at the photo, her thoughts flickered to the boxes and albums of family photos and information that had sat in her basement since her father’s death in 1994.

She thought that maybe St. Olaf could use the collection, and emailed St. Olaf Associate Archivist Jeff Sauve. The email immediately caught Sauve’s attention because he recognized the family name and knew that Engebrit’s great-grandfather, longtime St. Olaf faculty member Olav Lee, had married into another early St. Olaf family, the Schmidts. “I was starting to salivate because I figured that in these albums would be early St. Olaf images,” Sauve says.

Determined not to let this collection slip away, Sauve drove to Savage, Minnesota, during an extremely busy Celebration Weekend. The trip paid off: as he walked into Engebrit’s basement, she directed him toward a pool table covered in photos and documents and invited him to take whatever he could use.

Sauve took a portion of the material back to campus and was amazed at his find. Engebrit’s father, Ingmar Lee, had been president of the Minnesota Genealogical Society and a Minnesota Historical Society board member — and it showed. “To be honest,” Sauve says, “I’ve been an archivist for 20 years, and I have never seen anything prepared in such a manner.” The collection contains maps, notations of cemeteries, catalogued photo albums from the 1880s to the 1920s, and a box containing 2,000 index cards delineating the pedigree of every family member Lee was ever able to trace.

Until Engebrit connected with Sauve about the collection, she had no idea how valuable it would be to St. Olaf. Sauve is well-versed in early St. Olaf history, yet some of the photos and documents were completely unfamiliar even to him. The collection injects more information and images about early St. Olaf life into the archives and provides a new perspective. Engebrit is thrilled that her father’s collection will be well-preserved and available for scholarly use. “My dad would be proud that it won’t just be sitting on a relative’s shelf,” she says.

Her father spent countless hours tracing the family line. Engebrit and her siblings joined him on much of his quest for genealogical knowledge, and they remember playing ball in graveyards while he looked for ancestors, spending vacations in areas where distant relatives lived, and sitting in the car while he riffled through records at county courthouses. Before the advent of the Internet and digital technology, tracing family lineage necessitated all of these time-intensive measures — but now the process can be started with just the click of a mouse.

Because of the accessibility of the St. Olaf digital archives, what started as a search to find available information about family history ended up in the donation of a treasure trove of photos and documents to the college. In a given week, Sauve says that he hears from an average of five to 10 people trolling the College Archives’ Web site for their own family research, usually asking for a reproduction of a photo that they have seen on the site. He noted that it’s pretty rare that someone identifies that they have material to add to the St. Olaf collections, and that Engebrit’s donation was the first time that a collection was donated simply because of a photograph.

St. Olaf Digital Collections
“A lot of the credit for this digital collection goes to Metadata Librarian Jill Strass,” says Sauve. “She was immensely helpful in launching our digital library.”

As a metadata librarian, Strass coaches collection owners in the digitization process. “I help folks form and execute a plan for how they will get their print materials online, or for how they can transform their digital and/or online collections into formats for our database,” she says. There are a number of digital collections online in addition to the College Archives photos, including images of artwork owned by the college, past issues of the Viking yearbook and Manitou Messenger student newspaper, and current photos of campus.

So far the College Archives has 111 images online, and the technology that allowed Engebrit to search for images of her grandfather is powerful. Each image is accompanied by metadata, or terms that act as key words for searches. “Our images in cyberspace represent our rich history and unique perspective,” says Strass. “These pictures and words are available for discovery through search engines like Google and the many others that crawl our site.” Strass also noted that digital collections allow for sharing of the past, and for the re-discovery of the college and the many people that make up its spirit and history.

If you are interested in donating a piece of your family history to the St. Olaf Archives, contact Jeff Sauve.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or vanderve@stolaf.edu.