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Amy Surak: Behind the Scenes of the Archives

by Alexa Schmidt, A&E Editor

Amy Surak is the director of Manhattan College’s archives and special collections, located in the O’Malley library. She has been an archivist for about 25 years, and started working at MC in 2002.

Originally, she contacted Manhattan to conduct research for another institution’s history, and discovered that MC’s archivist had recently stepped down and the college needed someone to fill the position. Surak said if she could find someone, she would let the college know. But then September 11 occurred, she needed to get out of the downtown area, and took the college up on their offer.

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“I was interested in learning more and so I came up and it was a great place and I knew they needed a lot of help. They showed me around, and at the time the archives was over in Memorial Hall in these old rooms that were just plagued with environmental problems, like everything was leaking. But I was just like, “Oh my God, you have such an amazing collection.” So I kind of surveyed the collection just to see what was going on,” Surak said.

She continued.

“And then I also learned that there was not only the college materials but the Christian brothers materials, so the different districts of the Christian brothers, one of which was here, and then they had a Lasallian research collection. So it actually was so much bigger and more vast than I imagined, which actually made it more exciting. It was just an amazing Catholic collection, and the collection itself when I surveyed it was really like, you could tell the story of the history of Catholic education in New York. It’s a great topic, so it really had so many different reverberations,” Surak said.

The archives has a mission to collect materials and record the information; it contains materials that range from the east coast to the midwest, that date back to the 17th century in every language.

“We have a museum collection now, which I’m still really kind of discovering, which is exciting, but it contains like thousands of relics of saint’s bones. And so you do have like St. Catherine of Siena or St. Clare of Assisi or say Francis and, the institute has them, gets them and puts them typically in, at, you know, at the altar in a church. But when those things move around, inevitably they end up in the archives. So we have a ton of materials just related to the Catholic Church in general, like relics or and I mean we have this beautiful vest vestments that $40,000 because it’s all woven in gold, like crazy, wonderful stuff,” Surak said.

She continued.

“We have a great diverse collection, that’s for sure. A lot of people also think, it’s an archive, it’s just like all books and paper. But it’s not, it’s recorded information, but that can come in any form. So it could be film, it can be images, it can be a ton of ephemera,” she said.

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There are eight different archival collections, including the college, the New York district of the brothers of the Christian schools, the Long Island New England district, the Midwest district, the district of eastern North America, the Lasallian research collection, the museum collection and the Christian brothers conference collection.

Half of the collection is on the first floor of the library, with the other half located downstairs in a couple of different rooms that have high ceilings for storage.

The variety of materials include photographs, lantern slides, daguerreotypes, and essentially, every aspect of the history of photography. There are manuscripts, items on parchment, on Vellum, you know, paintings, professional art collections, and a myriad of materials.

Some of the archives that arrive are delicate, and require more care than usual. The main objective is to mitigate any damage to materials that arrive. The items need to be rehoused to withstand  environmental degradation, especially temperature or humidity fluctuations. Surak will do basic conservations if needed, but if necessary, will send materials out. The items then get evaluated, sorted into their proper category and then documented in the database.

“What you want to do is you want to preserve certainly the provenance of it because it’s not just the content of the materials, but that tells you, obviously that provides information, but how the materials came to you or were organized in the first place. So for example, you know, I’ll get a collection of say the provost’s office and his materials are alphabetized, you know, according to subject and then according to date or something like that. Well, that tells me obviously how he had his department structure, right? So I’m going to preserve that,” Surak said.

She continued.

“So, it’s based on right record groups. And they’re pretty, obvious, especially when you’ve been working with materials for so long. We’ll have different series or different sort of hierarchical categories to help researchers gain access, and the most obvious access points for a lot of these are dates. It’s almost like keeping metadata,” she said.

The archives are open to student use as well, for classes and research. Surak estimates that she’ll get about five to seven emails a day, but she encourages all students to visit the archives themselves.

“So I’ll try to do as much as I can, especially with digital technology. It’s easier to disseminate information. However, I love, I encourage people to come in because, you know, I’m going to give you my sort of synthesized view of what I think you want. But if you come in and you take a look, it may lead you in a different direction or different tangent. I’m not, I’m not filtering it. Now at least you’re having the pure, you’re looking at the original source, your original materials and that could take you to a different direction or it could just, you know, change your thought process on whatever it is you were interested in,” Surak said.

She continued.

“I think there’s something really valuable about that sort of tangible documentary aspect of looking and feeling original source materials. I think it’s stimulating. I mean I do with my kids all the time, you know what I mean, like if they can touch something and feel it and they truly old, that’s cool. Right. So that sort of please touch aspect about it. I like and which is another reason why I encourage people to come in here, take a look at this, and maybe that will spark something,” she said.

Surak is passionate about her work and truly believes the archives are meant to be shared.

“I love the materials. I love, I love, I love talking about it. Obviously I love showcasing it. I want to show it off because I want other people to benefit. I think I’m the type of person where knowledge is power, but it shouldn’t be hoarded. Everybody should benefit from it,” Surak said.

About The Quadrangle (967 Articles)
The Quadrangle, founded in 1924, is the student-run newspaper of Manhattan College.

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