Digging up facts, telling stories and busting myths with a university archivist

<p>Carl Van Ness has worked as an archivist at the George A. Smathers Libraries for nearly 40 years. Photo Credit: University of Florida</p>

Carl Van Ness has worked as an archivist at the George A. Smathers Libraries for nearly 40 years. Photo Credit: University of Florida

Welcome to From Florida, a podcast where you’ll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovations become a reality because of the University of Florida. 

Carl Van Ness has worked as an archivist at the George A. Smathers Libraries for nearly 40 years – and that’s given him a lot of time to read letters from the past, set the historical record straight when needed and uncover interesting facts about the University of Florida. In this episode of From Florida, you’ll hear about myths Carl has busted and listen as he describes some of his favorite items in the archive. Produced by Nicci Brown, Brooke Adams and James L. Sullivan. Original music by Daniel Townsend, a doctoral candidate in music composition in the College of the Arts.

For more episodes of From Florida, click here.

Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where we share stories about the people, research and innovations taking place at the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

Our guest today is Carl Van Ness, who has a long history — and that is the perfect word in this case — at the George A. Smathers Libraries, where he has worked in various capacities as an archivist.

Carl's current role is the Florida Political Papers archivist and he previously served as head of archives and manuscripts, associate chair of the Department of Special and Area Studies Collections and University Archivist, to know name just a few of his roles.

To say Carl knows a lot about the University of Florida would, quite simply, be a huge understatement. After nearly 40 years of service to the university, Carl will be retiring this summer, but he has graciously agreed to join us here today to share a few highlights of his career. Welcome, Carl.

Carl Van Ness: Thank you. It's a pleasure being here. I don't normally get to talk about what I do as an archivist. By the way, we pronounce it archivist.

Nicci Brown: Oh, I knew you'd get me!

Carl Van Ness: No, no, no, no. It's okay. Around the world it's pronounced differently. But normally the people ask me questions related to the university's history, so I don't often get the opportunity to talk about my profession.

Nicci Brown: Well, it is wonderful to have you here. You joined UF as a project archivist. Did I get that right?

Carl Van Ness: Yeah. Okay. Or archivist.

Nicci Brown: Archivist at the George A. Smathers Libraries in 1984. Could you tell us what attracted you to this position? What was your background and maybe what was your first project?

Carl Van Ness: Sure. I came into this profession surely through happenstance. I was a graduate student here. I was working on a master's degree in history, Latin American history, early Cuban history, and I was offered a position in the library, a six-month position, to process a collection related to the sugar industry in Cuba.
I had been working on a thesis related to railroad construction in Cuba, so this was kind of a good tie-in. I had no idea I wanted to become an archivist and I just loved the work. I just came in every day and was just this new adventure. Get to open a box that nobody's opened in 100 years and get to look at what's inside. It was just fascinating and from that period on, I was just hooked on being at archivist. I'm not going to not going to go back to grad school anymore, although I had to actually, I had to get a library science degree in order to work in the library.

Anyway, after doing that initial job, I worked in the university archives for about 16 years, not 60, 16 years, it seems like 60 at times, doing a lot of hands on work. Really just working with collections again. And then in 1997, I was appointed university archivist. I served in that role until 2003. Since 2003, I been pretty much a — I’m going to call it a utility archivist. In baseball, they referred to utility infielders, guys can play any position in the infield. Well, that's what kind of what I've been doing since 2003. I've been working with a variety of collections. I'm currently the political papers archivist in the department. I've also worked a lot with audiovisual materials, even though I have no training whatsoever in that, but they needed somebody to do that so I said, sure, I'll do that.

A photo of a man's hands as he sifts through papers in a box.

Carl Van Ness looks through a box of papers at the University of Florida's archives. Photo credit: University of Florida

Nicci Brown: And in 2006, you served as the university historian for UF. Can you tell us a little bit about that role?

Carl Van Ness: Sure. The position itself has no particular responsibilities, no defined responsibilities, let's put it that way. I'm only the second person to serve as university historian. The first was Sam Proctor, who was one of Florida's most significant interpreters of the state's history and culture. And I got to work with Sam a lot while he was here, and I got to know his particular style and his approach to being the university historian. When I became the university historian, I just kind of followed Sam's script, so to speak, although I'm less of a public person than Sam was, although I do a certain amount of speaking for the public. Mostly I'm a behind-the-scenes type of person. The primary responsibility of a university historian is to be a question answerer. I get asked a lot of questions and I try to answer them as best as I can.

To give you an example from last week, I got a call from President Fuch's office. We get a lot of calls from President Fuch's office, as you imagine. And President Fuch is giving talk this week, I think it is, to the Fulbright scholars. And so they asked me, do we have anything on the early history of the Fulbright program at the University of Florida? And I said I don't know, but I'll check into that. I had no sense of the history of the Fulbright scholarship program in the United States, so the first thing I had to do was go to the Wikipedia page and see when was the act passed. It was passed in 1946 and shortly thereafter, the program got kicking.

So, that would put the beginnings of the Fulbright scholarship program during the period of President Jay Hillis Miller, who was our fourth president. So, I immediately went to Miller's records to see if there was anything there and there was. There was a little bit there. I also discovered at that point that Miller had appointed Dean Ralph Page, who was at that time the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, to serve as the chair of the Fulbright committee. So, we also have his papers as well, so I went to those and I found an even much larger folder on the Fulbright program. And between the two, I was able to put together a decent sketch of the early history of the Fulbright program at the University of Florida. So that's typically what I do as university historian. Although, as I said, I do other things as well, have to speak before the public occasionally. I give tours of campus.

Nicci Brown: I have been on one of your tours.

Carl Van Ness: You've been on one of my tours?

Nicci Brown: It was wonderful, yes.

Carl Van Ness: Oh, thank you. I also do an indoor version of that, where instead of using buildings, I use objects or documents from the university archives to talk about the same things, but it's a lot easier indoors than outdoors. You don't have to worry about the weather and I can select whatever I want from the university archives to talk about, whereas with buildings you're kind of confined.

Nicci Brown: It sounds like you're a detective almost in some ways, following those leads and piecing things together to really build out a story of the past. So not inventing but bringing it back to life.

Carl Van Ness: That's true. That's a lot of what I do is detective work. Yeah.

Nicci Brown: The library is both home to the archive and serves as a museum for the university. What are some of the interesting artifacts that you've got housed there?

Carl Van Ness: Unlike the university archives itself, the normal records that we keep on the archives, the artifact collection, the museum collection, relates primarily to student life and culture. Whereas the archives is mostly about the administration, the presidents, the provost, that kind of thing, as well as faculty. But with the artifacts, it's mostly about student life.

There's a lot of things that students used, a lot of things that student wore. A lot of caps, specifically the ‘rat caps,’ which were the beanies that first-year students were required to wear before World War II, and then shortly after the war. We have a lot of posters from musical events, dramatical events, anti-war protests, that kind of thing.

We have our famous biscuit, which is a biscuit that reports to be a biscuit, anyway. We're not sure. We've never actually tested it to make sure it's a biscuit. But it was mailed by a University of Florida student in 1913 to a friend in Georgia. And that friend kept it, and eventually it ended up in the archives. So, we have the biscuit from the mess hall from 1913.

Nicci Brown: So, is this just a normal biscuit? What does it look like?

Carl Van Ness: It looks like a biscuit, it's round and it's flat. It's very hard now. It was actually a stamped item. This person put a stamp on the biscuit and put the address of this person on one side and on the back, it says "Mess hall from 1913." Yeah, it purports to be a biscuit. It purports to be an actual stamped item, although there is no actual cancellation to the stamp. A true stamp collector would say it's not authentic because it hasn't tied into the biscuit. You'd have to have the stamp where you'd have the postal cancellation on the stamp and the biscuit itself to qualify. Still, it’s an amazing thing.

Nicci Brown: Right. And I guess I'm just wondering about what would cause someone to want to mail a biscuit.

Carl Van Ness: Probably because the quality of the biscuit was so bad. I can only-

Nicci Brown: Or so good. Let's say so good.

Carl Van Ness: No, let’s say so bad. It says mess hall. The status of the mess hall was not the greatest thing in the world. In fact, the university was delighted when we finally switched to a cafeteria style. So, prior to the 1920s, if you were a student, you ate in common. Everybody got served the same meal, which was heavy on the starches, heavy on the breads and maybe some kind of meat. If you were lucky, maybe a vegetable, too. And then in sometime around early 1920s, we switched to a cafeteria style where you could actually choose what you wanted to eat. It was actually a big event when it happened.

Nicci Brown: So that was proof of the suffering, I guess.

Carl Van Ness: Proof of the suffering. Yes. You could probably throw that biscuit, and they probably did, they probably hurled those biscuits and hurt each other with them.

This is a photo of a 1913 biscuit from the University of Florida's archives.

The 1913 biscuit from the University of Florida's mess hall. Photo credit: University of Florida

My favorite objects in the museum collection are the sign-out sheets that women who lived in the dormitories had to maintain. If you were a woman living in a dormitory up until mid-1960s, you were required to sign out whenever you left your dormitory and sign back in when you returned. You had a curfew. During weekdays, I think it was like 10 p.m., weekends it was more like 12, 1 a.m. And women were allowed to keep their sign-out sheets if they wanted to, and some women did. Some of them ended up in the university archives. I use them a lot when I talk to students. It just kind of provokes a discussion because students today are like, ‘What? Why did women have to do this? Why didn't the men have to do this?’ This leads to a discussion about gender roles and the changing roles of women in a university setting. It's a great way to start a conversation. It's also just an interesting artifact.

Nicci Brown: And especially relevant now in women's history month as well.

Carl Van Ness: Yes, thank you. And I forgot all about that.

Nicci Brown: What are some of the reactions of students? You said that they're kind of like, ‘This can't be possible. Why did they have to sign out when men didn't have to?’ What other things do you hear from students when you're talking about some of these artifacts?

Carl Van Ness: Yeah, they are very confused at times because they just can't imagine what it would be like to be a woman here in the 1940s or 1950s. One of the obvious reasons for having a sign-out sheet and all that is to control women's sex lives. They're like, ‘What? Why do they care?’ This brings up the whole concept of in loco parentis. Prior to the 1970s, students here under the age of 21 were considered minors. They were considered children. So, the university was in the place of the parent. And your parents would want to protect you. If you were a woman, they'd want to protect you and make sure that you didn't get into trouble.

Nicci Brown: Did they have chaperones?

Carl Van Ness: No. But you had to state who you went out with.

Nicci Brown: Okay.

Carl Van Ness: It was very, very clear as who you were going out with on the sign-out sheet. We have one sign-out sheet that's very interesting. It's that of Adele Khoury was her name at the time. And she went out with a guy named Bob Graham a lot. And eventually she married Bob Graham, eventually became the first lady of Florida. But we have Adele's sign-out sheet and there it is, Bob Graham, Bob Graham, Bob Graham.

Nicci Brown: Does Adele Graham know? Does she know that you’ve got this?

Carl Van Ness: Oh, of course. She donated it. She donated it to us.

Nicci Brown: Okay, great.

Carl Van Ness: No, I was down at Miami Lakes visiting them and I saw that she still had this. ‘Please give this to the archives. This is wonderful.’ And she didn't hesitate. We actually have had women who refuse to give us their sign-out sheets. They have them, but they keep them because it's a personal memento of their lives while they were here.

Nicci Brown: And I guess in some ways, a diary of times.

Carl Van Ness: A diary in a way, and very personal.

Nicci Brown: History can be a sensitive subject at times. What's your approach been to creating a historical record while being mindful of politics and sensitivities? Because we're seeing things through the lens of today, but we know that in the future they'll be viewed a different way, perhaps.

Carl Van Ness: That's an interesting question. First of all, we don't actually create the records. Somebody else creates the records and we simply take them in, describe them and make them available to researchers. But in another sense, we do create the record because we are the gatekeepers. We are the ones who have to select which records get kept and which ones end up in the dumpster.

That's a very significant and weighty responsibility and we're very much cognizant of the biases that exist in a record's creation. Some people create records, some people don't create records. The university president creates a lot of records. The provost creates even more records. The person who cleans the bathrooms doesn't create any records and we're very mindful of that and we have been for a number of years.

We try to come up with ways to fill the gaps of selecting records that previous archivists may not have deemed worthy of maintaining. There's only so much you can do. We can't create records. Oral history fills the gap a lot, but we're not oral historians. We're archivists. We deal with paper records. We deal with the actual records that are created at the time. Oral history is a different thing, but it's very important. It also has its own biases as well. People's memories are faulty.

Nicci Brown: Of course, they are. And they're seen through one person's perspective quite often.

Carl Van Ness: One person's perspective, many years after the fact, in some cases. Archivists also have an ethical responsibility to make sure that the records are accurate, that we're keeping an accurate record and that all the information is available to researchers, to everyone, including information that might make some people feel uncomfortable. We hear a lot about that today. People feel uncomfortable, they don't want to talk about the past. Well, that's what we do.
We deal with the past and I'm not sympathetic to people who are uncomfortable with the past. It exists and we have to deal with the past.

I'm the son of a German Jew who escaped the Holocaust. Many of her friends didn't. Many of her relatives didn't. And I appreciate what Germany has done in the last 20 years in terms of talking about the past and revisiting the past and coming to grips with what happened during World War II. At first they didn't and nobody wanted to talk about it. It was like, ‘Oh, that's the past. Yes, we acknowledge these horrible things happen, but...’

Nicci Brown: Move on.

Carl Van Ness: Let's move on. Let's move on. And we can't do that.

Nicci Brown: In many ways, the past is the greatest teacher that we have.

Carl Van Ness: I think so, yes.

Nicci Brown: So, you've written on a variety of subjects related to the university's history. Are there some topics that really stand out that you can share with us today?

Carl Van Ness: Sure. First of all, I've always approached my research, regardless of whether it was aimed at a general audience or whether it was aimed at simply the people in the Gator Nation, I've always approached it with the attitude that this is serious scholarship. I've written some materials on some subjects that would only be of interest to someone in the Gator Nation and I've written other things that have more general interest or interest to other historians.

In all cases, I've tried to be somewhat of a myth buster. We have a lot of stories at this institution, every institution does, but we have a lot of stories about our origins and the origins of this and that. And I always try to confront those stories and challenge them and see if the archival record validates those stories or if it invalidates those stories.

Let me give you an example. I've written extensively on the origins of the Gator nickname. And the reason for that is that a number of years ago, I was going through the archives, wasn't looking for anything related to the Gator nickname, but I happened to find an explanation for why we were called the Gators. And the reason why that was interesting is because we already had a story more or less official, and this wasn't it. There's another story. So, I said, ‘Okay, well this is interesting. Now I have two stories. Which one is the valid story, which one is not?’ And I did a lot of research and I came away with the conclusion that the story that I found was, in fact, the real story of the origins of the Gator nickname and I was writing an article on that.

And then all of a sudden, I found a third explanation. At the end, I ended up doing what historians do. I said, ‘Well, we can't tell you exactly why we're called the Gators. There are various explanations for why they were the Gators.’ And that's a pitfall of archival research and historical research is that we look for that definitive answer, we look for that smoking gun, we don't find it. But we hope to come with some kind of consensus and even an overwhelming consensus, but at the end of the day, you're still left with questions and room for debate and other interpretations.

Nicci Brown: Can you share with us just a touch of those three stories?

Carl Van Ness: Oh, sure. The first story involved Phillip Miller who had a store in downtown Gainesville and he sold a number of things to students, including pennants. And according to the story, he was in Virginia visiting his son, who was at the University of Virginia, and they went to a manufacturer of pennants and they ordered pennants for the store. And the manufacturer asked what were the school colors, first of all, and they said orange and blue. And then he said, ‘Well, what's the mascot do you want to put on the pennants?’ And they said, ‘We don't have one.’ So they came up with one and that's the origins of the name. Well, turns out to be not the case. Those early pennants, I've never seen an early pennant with a Gator on it.

The second story involved the captain of the 1911 football team whose nickname was Bo Gator, which is Southern Brother Gator, so Neal "Bo Gator" Storter, and someone said that he was the origin of the Gator nickname.

Nicci Brown: Wow.

Carl Van Ness: But he denied it.

Nicci Brown: Okay.

Carl Van Ness: And he came up with the third explanation, which I'm not going to get into, because we've already got up to the weeds in this. But, yeah, it’s fascinating to people in the Gator nation, I guess, but other people may not find that so interesting.

Nicci Brown: Well, one more Gator Nation question, though, because you did mention the school colors and from what I understand, they weren't always orange and blue.

Carl Van Ness: That may have been the mistake that Austin Miller, the son made, when he told the story 40 years after the fact. Yeah, the school colors in 1907, when this supposedly happened, were probably blue and gold, not orange and blue. So, what they may have done, inadvertently, is influence the choice of colors. And that may have been why he was confused about it. But yeah, they were blue and gold, at least most people thought they were blue and gold, but some people thought the other color was orange or yellow. And eventually we decided on orange.

Nicci Brown: Well, we know what we are now.

Carl Van Ness: We know what we are now. We're blue and orange and we're Gators. Yes.

Nicci Brown: There you go. What about some other fun stories or interesting stories from the past that might surprise people?

Carl Van Ness: Sure. One that I always come back to is the fact that the University of Florida was one time in Lake City.
Most people don't know that. And it's one of those things that it's amazing, isn't it? I mean, why would the state of Florida move its university from one place to another, especially only 45 miles south? We're the only state in modern history to have done that. It had to be something really dramatic for that to happen. And the bottom line is that there had been a lot of problems in Lake City and when the opportunity came to move the university, after the passage of the Buckman Act of 1905, there were people who jumped on it and said yes. The situation in Lake City had always been very bad and the leading citizens of Lake City were all constantly interfering in the affairs of the university. So, they said, Hhmm, let's go to someplace else where they'd be more appreciative. And now we're in Gainesville.

Nicci Brown: And water played a part in that?

Carl Van Ness: Well, that's another story.

Nicci Brown: Okay, lots of stories.

Carl Van Ness: That's one of those stories about the University of Florida came to Gainesville because of free water. Certainly, probably was a factor, but mostly it was about just getting out of Lake City. And the only other city that offered the opportunity was Gainesville. Gainesville fought very hard to have the university come here. They were disappointed because the Buckman Act had abolished the East Florida Seminary, one of several schools that were abolished by the act, so they were putting up a fight.

Nicci Brown: Well, no doubt there are some incredible items in the archive and I know this might be asking you to pick a favorite child, but do you have a favorite item in the archive?

Carl Van Ness: Well, I've talked about some of the things that have always intrigued me, but it's amazing, almost 40 years as an archivist and I still enjoy reading other people's mail. I've been reading a lot of mail from the early presidents, Albert Murphree and Andrew Sledd. Andrew Sledd was our first president, Albert Murphree was our second president. And I have done a lot of research on the origins of public higher education in Florida and have gotten to know those two men rather well. And I feel like if either one of them showed up on the streets tomorrow, I'd be able to have an intelligent, great conversation with them and tell them how much I appreciate their efforts and all that. But I still enjoy just reading other people's mail.

But I have worked with a lot of different types of records over the years. I mentioned audiovisual materials. A lot of those audiovisual materials came from this very studio, WUFT, including a lot of news clips, but even B-roll and that kind of thing, the stuff that the studio rejected but we still have all the outtakes and stuff like that.
Another one of my favorites are the episodes of Conversation. It was a WUFT television interview-format program, very similar to this, that was done by Mike Gannon. And we have about a third of the episodes that he did and we've been able to preserve them and they're fascinating. They're just various people who came through campus, but also just interviews with administrators and other people who had an influence on the university.

Nicci Brown: Any other quirky kind of objects that you've got there that really stand out to you?

Carl Van Ness: Oh, a few. One that's rather unusual is something that actually probably belongs at Florida State University rather than here. In 1903, the University of Florida in Lake City decided to become an all-male institution and so the women left. One of those women was this woman named Ida Morgan and her daughter ended up giving us a number of things that had belonged to her from both institutions. And one of them is this whiskey glass, which is a commemoration of a football game played between Florida State College in Tallahassee, before it became the state college for women, and the University of Florida in Lake City. Florida State actually won the game and it's garnet and gold, their school colors, but we have it.

By the way, Florida State does not have the type of archives that we have, in large part because no one thought to keep the materials, whereas we've always had people like Sam Proctor, I mentioned him earlier, who, in addition to being the university historian, he was the person who created the archives back in the early 1950s. Another person that preceded me was Carla Summers, who was one of the first professional archivist, there were two that preceded her, but they were here only for a short amount of time. Carla, on the other hand, stayed here for about 15 years. And she was the person who hired me, so I can never thank her too much for that, but she really put the archives on a professional road.

Nicci Brown: I was going to ask you about that because we're such an enormous place and there are so many things being generated on a daily basis. How do you go about making the need or the importance of archiving, how do you make people aware of that so that things don't end up in the dumpster before you have a chance to realize or to look at it and ascertain whether or not it belongs in the archives?

Carl Van Ness: It is a challenge. It's a challenge convincing administrators and everyone else that the archives play an important role and needs to be funded. It's difficult to get the word out to people. It includes a records management program, which again, Carla influenced the creation of the records management program. We have a records manager now and that's part of her responsibility and also the responsibility of the current university archivist is to go out and tell people, ‘Yes, we definitely want this material. Don't throw it away.’ So much of what we create today is electronic. I thank God I didn't have to deal with electronic records too much. I'm more than content to let the next generation of archivists deal with those issues. But that is a major ... they don't end up in the dumpster anymore, they end up in your trash file. Yeah. Yeah. So it's a totally different world.

Nicci Brown: Well, you will retire from UF this summer after having made an incredibly tangible contribution to the university. What are you most proud of? Is there one thing or a collection?

Carl Van Ness: No, there's no one thing that I'm proud of, but I'm proud that I got to follow people like Sam Proctor and Carla Summers and carry on the tradition. I'm very proud of the fact that the things that I've done will endure. That's one of the great satisfactions of being an archivist, whether you work on a collection for a year or a month or a week. At the end of that time period, you've got the collection ready, it's available to researchers and you feel like you've accomplished something. I take great pride in having done that and I take great pride in knowing that it will continue and people will follow me to continue the work.

Nicci Brown: Well, Carl, thank you for joining us today and thank you for all you've done for the University of Florida in preserving that history and those stories that are so much a part of us today.

Carl Van Ness: Thank you very much and it's been a great pleasure.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for another episode From Florida. I hope you'll tune in next week. I'm your host, Nicci Brown. Our executive producer is Brooke Adams and our technical producer is James Sullivan.

Learn more about Carl Van Ness at this UF News story, which is linked here: https://news.ufl.edu/2022/03/uf-historian-carl-van-ness/

From Florida March 22, 2022