Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sense of Place: Disorientation, Excitement, Nostalgia

Yesterday, I served as the moderator of a session titled "Creating Your Career: Alternatives to Traditional Employment" at the autumn New England Archivists' conference. I was excited to be returning to the school from which I received my Master's 20 years ago. I hadn't been on campus in 15 years. In fact, when I was last at Simmons College, they didn't really have a campus. I was familiar with the main building and a parking lot that was a constant cause of consternation. Parking was precious with not nearly enough space to accommodate the student body. Though I knew that Simmons had a great school of management and other programs in different buildings, it was as if those schools were not really part of my own since we were separated by architectural design.

I pulled into the underground parking lot and found a space with ease. The trip down from New Hampshire was smooth, though my sense of direction was not. Everything looked different. New businesses and construction confused me and I ended up driving out of my way to get where I was going. I was already feeling disoriented when I exited the parking garage and went up the elevator to a quad area. Simmons actually has a real campus now with buildings for the different schools connected by an outdoor area. A shiny new building greeted me for my conference across the way. It was clean, light, and full of glass. "Wow! This is MY school." I felt proud of the leaps my "little" school has taken in the past couple of decades. But I also felt a little old and disconnected. I realized that there was a definite generation gap between current students and my generation.

Having arrived early, I worked my way up to the library. It was basically my second home for one and a half years. I took an elevator up, admired the archives on display outside the information center and wandered in. Computers were everywhere, which was not unexpected. Comfortable sitting areas, clean tables, carpeting, and more showed off the best side of library science. Unlike MY Simmons library, this one comfortably combined resources for all of Simmons' schools. I wondered how students could really get the full impact of a cataloging class by sitting in such a cushy space. I was nostalgic for the hard tables and chairs surrounded by shelves of Library of Congress cataloging guides.  I had a deja view moment when I passed a copier. Something was familiar. Was this part of the old design? (Having a lousy sense of direction and less than stellar spacial relation skills, I couldn't be sure.)

Simmons College graduation day, 1993.
The student body seemed very young. I was the youngest person in the program when I attended Simmons. It now seemed like everyone wandering the halls was in her/his early twenties. That is, everyone looked young until I passed another woman looking as dazed and confused as I felt. "Wow, this place has changed," she muttered. She had the poised, intellectual look of a well-informed librarian. She was working her way through the conference with a sense of professional grounding, I think. I knew that she was seeking a few pointers that she might have missed along the way. She was not bouncing from program to program quickly taking as many notes as she could to figure out who she wanted to be and what path she would follow to launch her archives career. "When did you graduate?" I asked. "1992," she responded. " we know each other?" No. But we both knew that we shared the same sense of place. We were part of the same Simmons community with a sense of place that differed from many others at the conference that day.

Then, I reached it. I stood in the main entryway of the old Simmons building that I knew so well. It  looked virtually the same. The old architecture greeted me with open arms. I felt markedly more relaxed and thought, "I'm so glad they left you intact." This was/is MY Simmons. This was the hall that held my memories and I could practically hear the voices of my generation beating from the walls. I welcome change, but I am once again reminded of the importance of memory and sense of place. They are so intricately woven into our sense of self. They are part of the thread of our history. Sense of place is a delicate thing. Markers reminding us of where we have been help ground us and let us walk confidently into our future.

I entered the lecture hall. I was ready to share what I could to help this new generation, with their new sense of place, to find their own confident stride.


  1. I often have occasion to go back to URI, my undergraduate alma mater (I would live in the library there if I could). It had long remained exactly as I knew it back in the 1980s, but in the last 2-3 years the campus has been vastly transformed. Vast new buildings put up, old buildings torn down, completely different traffic flows... I wonder if anyone at the campus thought to specifically document the "before," prior to all the recent changes?

  2. I was wondering that about Simmons as I wrote this, Mark.

    In my first professional position, at the public library in Waltham, Massachusetts, I was lucky enough to come on board immediately after a building expansion. Records that documented the work were accompanied by photographs. I began putting together a collection that included the library's history of "before" and "after." Adults who had attended the library in their youth especially loved the images of the old children's room. The room had been converted for a new purpose. It is now the local history room there. Having never attended the library prior to my hiring, as archivist I only personally knew that space for one purpose. Comparing my visitors' memories to my knowledge of the renovation was fascinating.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment.:)