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Digging deep: Architecture students immerse themselves in University Archives to research the YMCA Project

This spring, students in Professor Lucy Maulsby’s honors section of Architecture, Modernity and the City, 1910–80 are participating in a university wide effort to gather material and create a critical body of research for an exhibition to commemorate the history of the Huntington Avenue YMCA, its relationship with Northeastern, and its historical role in the larger city of Boston.

In January, students met with the head of Special Collections and University Archivist Giordana Mecagni and Assistant Archivist Michelle Romero for a tour of the University Archives (which included a walk through the ‘vault’) and an overview of some of the materials related to the history of the Huntington Avenue Y. Student John Rinaldi was “impressed by the sheer size of the Northeastern Archives,” noting that Northeastern’s “vast collection of archival material is astounding.

Each student in the class will be researching an aspect of the building’s early twentieth century history (looking at such topics as its relationship to the surrounding community and changing geography of the city) as well as its current transformation into student dorms in the context of contemporary debates about adaptive reuse.  For student Madison Rogers, access to the archive provided an opportunity “to see what intentions the architects had for what the Huntington YMCA would be to the community. Looking at the original plans was fascinating.” 

Their research will contribute to public knowledge through a collaboratively written Wikipedia entry on the Huntington Avenue Y as well as the forthcoming exhibition.For several of the students, the access to these original and unique materials suggested a fundamentally new way to learn about the past. Ayesha Qamar noted: It was fascinating to see the kind of information a dated map or even certain documents and objects can convey. It was certainly a different experience from going to the library.” Danny Sweeney also was impressed with the tangible nature of the materials they were able to access: “I never knew how helpful looking at archival documents could be. Looking at the original building plans of the YMCA taught me more than I imagine any book could.

The opportunity to visit and spend time with the many kinds of materials held in archival collections can inform and transform the way a student understands research.  This was the case for Cassie Hlinka who explained: “When visiting the archives, I got to experience a type of research that was completely new to me, in which you have to dig deep to learn about a topic. I saw that it can reveal information that you could never find in traditional books, information that can bring you to completely different conclusions than what you started with.”

In a similar vein Srishti Goyal noted: “The Northeastern Archives is an incredible source for information that I (along with many, I’m sure) was previously unaware of. Unlike books or articles, the documents found in the archives are tangible and right before your eyes. Being able to pore over them and run your fingers through the pages almost takes you back to the past as if you were there while they were originally being created. While they may take a little more time to read through, they’re certainly significantly more interesting than any article regarding them may be.