Somethin’ special: An in-depth look at the woman behind Special Collections

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By Julia Friedman

Did you know that Union College owns a Bible from the 1490s? Or that we have tablets with Cueniform letters from the Sumerian civilization? Most of us probably didn’t. In fact, I’ll admit that I didn’t even know a Special Collections Office existed on the third floor of the library until last week. All this time, I thought there were just a handful of lonely cubicles up there. But I was surprised to find a world of Union history and artifacts in the semi-circle office nestled on Schaffer’s third floor.

The first thing that strikes you about the Special Collections Office is its temperature. After being cleared to enter the room, the temperature drops at least ten degrees; this colder temperature helps preserve and maintain the artifacts in the archives. For me, the colder temperature signified my entrance into another world, a reverence I seemed to share with Union’s Head of Special Collections Ellen Fladger. I sat down with her to learn about her own history and the crucial role she has been playing at Union for over thirty years.

The first question I had for her was about her entrance into this world of archives. Fladger smiled and replied, “When I was a little kid, we had a trunk of old books in the attic. On rainy days, I’d go up there and look at the covers and the printed pages of each book, amazed with the handiwork. So, when I started working here, I felt like someone let me loose in a large attic.”

Fladger says that she now helps mostly with research requests from alumni who call back looking for specific information or students working on projects. The Special Collections Office is a huge resource and a constantly dynamic environment for Fladger.

After studying history as an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College, Fladger went on to earn a graduate degree in American Folk Culture from the Cooperstown Graduate Program of SUNY Oneonta.

“It’s a study of traditional food ways, literature and artifacts,” she explains. “Not the study of high art, but things that are passed on by word of mouth, generally.”

While finishing her Master’s thesis, Fladger learned that Union was looking to hire in the Archives Department. “I was interviewed by Ruth Anne Evans,” she says, smiling and pointing to Evans’ portrait on the wall. “She was a fantastic mentor and person. She knew more about Union’s history than anyone. She is the one who taught me how to get at this information.” Deciphering the handwriting of old bill books was part of Fladger’s application process.

Working in the Archives, Fladger is well versed on Union’s abundant supply of historical materials, but her job is never done.

“History is being made at Union every day, so I have to think how to capture and collect it,” says Fladger, “I like working here because I get to do a lot of different things. It’s not dull or boring. We might have a little dust, but I’m always out collecting new things.”

When asked what was the most interesting thing she found here, Fladger described an incident when she first started working. She found pieces of clear plastic in the shelves. On the outside of the envelope said the word “X-Rays.” These pieces of plastic were actually radiographic material recording watermarks and Fladger immediately transferred these radioactive plastic pieces to the right people.

One of Fladger’s favorite aspects of her job is working with Union students, faculty and alumni. She enjoys connecting with these members of the community to both learn and teach about personal experiences from Union.

“I would like to have more students come up here,” she said. “It’s important for the students to know about Union’s history and this is one way to do it.”

“Because we’re a small community,” she added, “students have access to rare and historical materials that larger universities might not have. Union has a really rich history and students should know about it because they’re a part of it too.”

So next time you’re in the library and looking for a study break, wander up to the third floor and get lost in Union’s rich history.

 

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