Of all St. Thomas’ storytellers, no one comes close to having as many stories at their fingertips as Ann Kenne. As the university’s archivist and keeper of its special collections and archives, Kenne has read, organized, cataloged and stored (physically and digitally) more stories in her 19 years at St. Thomas than anyone you’re likely to find. And the best part: Her door is open and she’s always ready to help you make one of those stories your own.
Kenne is an Algona, Iowa, native with working stops at Iowa State and Franklin and Marshall College after school at University of Iowa. Since 1998 she has overseen the migration of tens of thousands of documents into digital storage at St. Thomas, and every day works with a vast collection of the university’s physical history.
The Newsroom stopped in to Kenne’s office in the lower levels of the O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library to pick her brain about being a St. Thomas storyteller.
Did you know you wanted to get into this kind of work when you started college?
I started off as a political science major. I worked at the library in high school and my work-study job in college was in special collections. I always kind of knew I wanted to be a librarian and in general your education has to go through the graduate level for that. I also minored in history and English; it’s a good idea when you’re a librarian to have a broad base of education.
What drew you to this kind of work, and what do you still enjoy about it?
You learn something new every day. Yes, I do get the question all the time about who I.A. O’Shaughnessy is, but you stumble across stuff you never knew. Did you know the guy who invented Jolly Ranchers was a St. Thomas alum? He and his wife started a company and sold it to someone else before it went on to prominence. Or, say, I didn’t know we had an alum who was in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, or one who hit a home run in the World Series. You never know what you’re going to learn, and that’s the exciting thing about working here: You never know what questions someone is going to ask and what you’ll get to learn about.
Everything about St. Thomas history you work with are all the school’s stories. Do you just enjoy getting to work with these stories?
I’m always interested in learning things. People are working on different kinds of projects and have a different perspective or take on something, so it’s interesting to hear what they’re doing, writing about, working on. We had a graduate student from Germany who came and worked on a project for a whole month … on Einstein deniers. In the modern world we think everyone accepted Einstein’s theories, and we had an engineering professor who didn’t. There was a whole community of scientists around the world who were disbelievers and we have his papers from these people and his writings about why he didn’t believe Einstein. My job is to make that kind of stuff available. … There’s so much stuff you can’t [read everything], so it’s engaging with scholars and getting to learn, and then pass those stories on to other people.
When I think of you as a storyteller, you have so many things pass through your world. Does that make you a curator of stories? How do you think of yourself as a storyteller?
Curator is a good term for it. Part of my ethics as an archivist is to make as much information available as we can. There are certain things that have restrictions, but we want to make as much of this material available to people as we can. I want to collect, organize, describe and preserve as much as I can, so these stories are around for the person 50 years down the road to revisit and reanalyze and rediscover.
Stories from the past and who we are: that’s profoundly important. Is that role of preserving stories important for you?
That’s one of the most important aspects of my job. We do what we can to make sure the materials, whether paper, audio, video, photographs, slides and now electronic things, … don’t disappear, and we end up with a big block in our history where it’s hard to tell the stories. Archives here wasn’t formally started with a full-time position … until the 1970s. There are big chunks of our history where things are a little sketchy. There were very large paper drives during the wars and recycling drives so, pre-1940 or so, our history is a little sketchy. Only certain things survived, and not a lot of it. I don’t want the early 2000s to be another of those areas where there’s a big black hole.
What questions and subjects do you enjoy most finding stories about?
I love when I can get undergraduates in here delving into materials. Students have a different perspective on things than I do, than their instructors do, and they find things that I wouldn’t have thought of before. We had an art history class in several years ago looking at various campus plans and they saw what the ideal [plan] was … and certain things are adopted and certain things aren’t. But you can see the footprint of those plans in different places on campus. So that was a lot of fun.
We have the papers of a man named Christopher Dawson, who was an English Catholic writer. We have a few letters by T.S. Eliot as well, and Eliot was disappointed that Dawson didn’t like his book as much as he thought he would. We also have Dawson’s personal library so we got out the book along with the letters, and the student could look at the notes Dawson put in the margins and things he underlined. They wrote a fabulous paper and ended up getting it published. I get most excited about when you get students in and they get to tell their stories and things they didn’t know about St. Thomas.
Do you have a favorite story about St. Thomas you like to tell?
Pretty much everybody I talk to about St. Thomas, somehow my feminist hat comes on and I start to talk about the first woman who was on the faculty. She’s kind of lost in history, in part because she was here about six years and then went back to Rhode Island where she was originally from and continued her career there. She ran into a few blocks as she was working here because she was the first full-time female, and she had a Ph.D. and not all men who were teaching at the time did. She was not quiet about her desires to make the school more professional, requiring Ph.D.s and advancing the curriculum. Because she was a woman she had a little rougher time. Her name’s Mary Keefe.
How much has the transition to digital storage changed the way you go about storytelling and does it make St. Thomas’ stories more accessible?
The great thing is we are able to make things that are fragile and not easy to access more easily accessible: the yearbooks, newspapers, some photos. We scan and put out there for people to use. Having the yearbooks and newspapers online is a godsend; it decreases the time it takes for me to answer questions. We can’t digitize everything in the collection, though, and we wouldn’t want to. A lot of people think all we have is digital; that’s a sample of our collection and you can come to us and see the whole thing.