Inside Iowa State

Inside Archives

Submit news

Send news for Inside to, or call (515) 294-7065. See publication dates, deadlines.

About Inside

Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

April 27, 2007

An archivist's dream

by Erin Rosacker

Tanya Zanish Belcher

Iowa State's yearlong sesquicentennial celebration has kept Tanya Zanish-Belcher, head of University Archives and Special Collections, and her staff busier than usual for more than two years. Here, she shows off an "Ames" letter sweater (circa 1905), one of the estimated 2,500 artifacts stored in her department. Photo by Bob Elbert.

Does the word "archive" conjure up images of dark basements and dusty boxes? For Tanya Zanish-Belcher, that couldn't be any farther from the truth - it's a place where history truly comes alive.

And with Iowa State's yearlong sesquicentennial celebration, the University Archives and the Special Collections departments have been hopping with activity.

"I am fascinated by Iowa State in a lot of ways," she said. "It's a really unique place. I think we're very special. I don't know that people realize that. We're much more interesting than people give us credit for."

Zanish-Belcher (her name is pronounced TAWN-ya ZANN-ish BELCH-er) wears many hats, with enough titles to overload a business card. She came to Iowa State in January 1995 as curator of the archives for the Archives of Women in Science and Engineering (WISE). In 1998, she stepped in as interim head of the recently merged Special Collections and University Archives departments in the University Library, and in 2000 that position became permanent. Zanish-Belcher still serves as curator for WISE, and is an associate professor in the library. She also is responsible for rare book purchases.

Archives vs. Collections

The University Archives document Iowa State and anyone with a connection to ISU - for example, President William Beardshear's papers or books written by faculty. Special Collections materials are from individuals or organizations that may not have a direct connection to ISU. The collections include organizational records and publications from groups such as the Iowa Academy of Science, as well as recently acquired Civil War diaries written by Iowans.

The departments take up an equal amount of space in the impressive storage and vault area on the fourth floor of Parks Library. By the numbers, Zanish-Belcher estimates the unit contains 50,000 rare books (the oldest dating back to 1475), 10,000 films, 3,000 artifacts and a combined 15,000 linear feet of archives and manuscript collections. But it's the selection of 1 million photographs that gets the most attention.

"Increasingly, more people want images," Zanish-Belcher said. "In fact, I've been surprised. People do not necessarily research in our records anymore, they come over and they want the images."

Surviving a sesquicentennial

Campus-wide preparations for the sesquicentennial celebration have made the archives a popular spot. Zanish-Belcher said requests for information, artifacts and photos have increased tenfold, with many campus units beginning their projects more than a year ago.

"In a lot of ways, it's been a lot of fun, because people are reminded about the archives," Zanish-Belcher said. "We receive a lot of appreciation from the campus. We try to be helpful, and that's our goal. We are a public service. We want to be sure people are taken care of and we can help them as much as possible.

"I have a wonderful staff," she added. "They are easy to work with and are ready to respond to whatever request comes our way."

Zanish-Belcher has been preparing more than three years for the event. She was a member of the committee that organized the history book A Sesquicentennial History of Iowa State University: Tradition and Transformation. The department also has been compiling oral histories from people like Martin and Patty Jischke, Dick Seagrave, Ed Lewis and Jean Adams.

More than two years ago, Zanish-Belcher started work on a sesquicentennial Web site and a comprehensive, updated timeline for it. A year later, the timeline concept was adopted for use in this spring's issue of VISIONS magazine. Now, with the printed version done, Zanish-Belcher hopes to have the electronic timeline completed by December.

"Timeline is my life right now," she said.

And just how much has the sesquicentennial impacted her life? Zanish-Belcher said she easily could devote at least one of the seven full-time positions in her area to deal solely with the daily demands of the event. She also added another title to her résumé - that of official historian for the sesquicentennial.

"Most of the time, lately, I feel like I just run from place to place," she said. "What's really funny is that last year, in one of the professional newsletters I subscribe to, someone wrote an article on 'surviving your sesquicentennial.'"

It's not surprising that she hasn't had time to write the author a thank-you note as she intended. She has taken the advice offered in the piece, however, which was to take care of herself and be prepared for demands at all hours.

"How do I recover? I like to get outside - take walks, do some gardening," Zanish-Belcher said. "I have a love of the outdoors, it puts things in perspective."

Making history

Despite the extra work, Zanish-Belcher said she's "invigorated" by the sesquicentennial. What she really appreciates about the celebration is the connection it has provided today's campus community with the school's history and its history in the making.

"The people of the past are people, too - it's not just a past that has nothing to do with us," she said. "That's why I'm really enjoying the sesquicentennial, because I'm hoping that people realize that we're a part of this. When they're celebrating the bicentennial, we will be part of Iowa State's history."


". . . I'm hoping that people realize that we're a part of this. When they're celebrating the bicentennial, we will be part of Iowa State's history."

Tanya Zanish-Belcher