Archivist recollects her past and future path

TIMETABLING: On Feb. 21, 1950, the majority of Ferris Institute was destroyed by a fire. Melinda McMartin Isler, one of Ferris State University’s archivists, can pull information on such historical events. (Courtesy photo)

TIMETABLING: On Feb. 21, 1950, the majority of Ferris Institute was destroyed by a fire. Melinda McMartin Isler, one of Ferris State University’s archivists, can pull information on such historical events. (Courtesy photo)

PRESERVATION: Melinda McMartin Isler was the first university archivist at Ferris State University. She continues to preserve and maintain historical items. (Pioneer photo/Cortney Erndt)

PRESERVATION: Melinda McMartin Isler was the first university archivist at Ferris State University. She continues to preserve and maintain historical items. (Pioneer photo/Cortney Erndt)

BIG RAPIDS – There are few people who relive history daily. Melinda McMartin Isler, a Ferris State University archivist, is one of them.

Archives are records of historical individuals, groups, institutions and governments that contain information of value. The primary task of a university archivist is to maintain, preserve, and pull information from historical sources for students’ and staff members’ research.

As information continues to be published online instead of in books, Isler’s position is becoming more vital than ever.

“You have to deliberately migrate electronic records,” Isler said. “Electronics changed my skill-set, but it has made my job more necessary and visible.”

Migrating electronic records involves scanning documents, uploading them to an online system and eventually changing systems.

Preserving physical items also is an important component of her job. FSU’s historical items are kept in the Archives division of the Alumni Building on campus.

“Two years ago, we received a box of a Ferris student’s items from a public library out in Everett, Wash.,” she said. “It has pictures, yearbooks, postcards and other items. Since it wasn’t dumped in a fire or swamped in water, it’s fine. It looks great.

“Electronic records don’t work that way. You have to make a conscious choice of what you’re keeping and what you’re not keeping.”

Isler began working as FSU’s first university archivist in September of 2002.

“When I arrived, there had been a collection of university-history items that dated back to the ‘60s,” she said.

Beginning in 1964, Lillian Masselink Wright managed the items prior to Isler. Wright was the daughter of Gerrit Masselink, who was the second president of Ferris Institute, prior to when the college was renamed Ferris State College and then Ferris State University.

Although she was never trained as an archivist, Wright was knowledgeable on the history of the institution and created a chronological scrapbook of news clippings compiled by the press office. Wright died in 1984.

In the late ‘60s, the collection was turned over to R. Lawrence Martin, a trained reference librarian.

“He was never trained in history, but the university sent him to some workshops and he sort of spearheaded it until his retirement,” Isler said.

When Isler came to FSU, the dean of the Ferris Library of Information, Technology and Education at the time was Richard Cochran, who started his career as an archivist.

“It’s not very often that you have a dean of libraries who knows exactly what an archives is and what it does,” Isler said. “That’s a good thing to have in a supervisor and that interested me.”

Growing up, Isler wanted to be a children’s librarian, she said.

“Ending up in this field was accidental,” Isler said. She studied history and English at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.

“An honors program sent us to the state archives to do research for a paper,” Isler said. “It was fascinating to me. I’ve never seen or heard of an archives before. I thought it was a lot of fun.”

Isler received good remarks on her paper, she said.

“My advisor sat me down and said, ‘Look, I’m going to be honest, you seem to be best at finding the information. Maybe you should look at going into archives,’” Isler said.

Isler went on to pursue further education at the University of Albany, in Albany, N.Y., where she received a Masters of Arts in public history and a Masters of Science in library and information science.

“I decided my advisor was right,” Isler said. “I really didn’t like writing 20-page papers, but I’m really good at finding information.”

Isler is most attracted to learning about history from the late 1800s through the early 1940s, she said.

“There was a lot going on then,” Isler said.

She noted that history often repeats itself.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on now that people think is so new, creative and innovative, but they have all usually happened at least two or three times before in this century,” Isler said.

One of the best aspects of being an archivist is receiving mail, she said.

“We had mail that showed up last week that was a yearbook sent to us by a nephew of a faculty member who passed away,” Isler said. “In this 1955 yearbook, we found a newspaper clipping.”

Through the clipping, Isler discovered that Ferris had an all-female drill shooting team, which won the state championship in 1955.

“When I look at something that I’ve never seen before, there’s always something I don’t know,” she said.

When Isler isn’t archiving, she teaches freshmen courses on FSU history. The class is a one-credit seminar that full-time freshmen are required to take. Aside from history, the class also focuses on advising, registration, the library and other components of college freshmen should know.

“It’s not the sort of thing students want to do, but usually, at least half of the class will find something about history that will strike their interest,” Isler said. “I know my students probably won’t be historians, or even history majors, but I want to get across to them that it’s not all just boring stuff in a book.”

Isler encourages history enthusiasts to get involved in organizations like the Mecosta County Historical Society and the Big Rapids Historic Preservation Commission.

For more information on FSU history or archiving, contact Isler at (231) 591-3731.

For clarification, Melinda McMartin Isler is not related to FSU President David L. Eisler.

A PIECE OF HISTORY: Ferris State University's Archives is located on campus in the Alumni Building. (Pioneer photo/Cortney Erndt)

A PIECE OF HISTORY: Ferris State University’s Archives is located on campus in the Alumni Building. (Pioneer photo/Cortney Erndt)

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