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Archiving the History of Baruch College: Sandra Roff Helps Turn a Vision Into Reality

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"It was a labor of love for President Altman and for me as well,” says Baruch archivist Sandra Roff of the historical installation that now graces the lobby of the College’s Information and Technology Building.

“The Historical Installation is President Altman’s gift and legacy to the College. It was a major initiative; he wanted the story told,” says Roff, who devoted many months to its creation. Dozens of design sketches and emails later, the history of Baruch is now on view for all to see. But it is not complete. According to Roff, there is room for future development. Eventually, she says, “We’d like to tell the story of each of our key campus buildings. They all have a fascinating history.” The Information and Technology Building, for instance, was originally a 19th century power station for the Lexington Avenue Metropolitan Street Railway Company.

Professor Roff reports that she is currently at work on an article entitled, “The College Archivist as College Historian,” noting that it is only in recent years that colleges nationwide have begun to mine their past for historic documents, photographs, and other ephemera. What they’ve begun to realize is that the dusty archives are repositories of institutional identity. Baruch’s exhibit, for example, was created in part to demonstrate “the groundbreaking idea that this institution represents.” It was groundbreaking because the notion that children of workingmen and immigrants were deserving of a college education was once considered a radical, even dangerous, idea.

Sandra Roff first came to Baruch College in 1987, the year that a CUNY mandate decreed that each college within The City University of New York must appoint an archivist. In 1996, she was one of three University scholars who created a traveling exhibition to mark the University’s 150th anniversary. Hixon Design, the same firm that helped to create Baruch’s historical installation, assisted with the design and mounting of that one as well. That exhibit eventually became a book co-authored by Roff, From the Free Academy to CUNY: Illustrating Public Higher Education in New York City, 1847-1997.

For the new exhibit, it was important to both President Altman and Roff to show the evolution of Baruch College in the context of a growing city, and to that end the Baruch historical installation includes material from a slew of institutions other than Baruch College. The National Archives, the U.S. Park Service, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, City College, and the Museum of Natural History all contributed materials. The project began in November 2009 and went until “four days before [Spring 2010] graduation,” Roff says, but in the end, “President Altman’s vision was realized.”