Q&A: Matthew Lyons, Drexel's Newest University Archivist

Drexel's University Archivist Matthew Lyons.

Starting a new job is always interesting — especially when you’re newly hired as the archivist during a special anniversary year at a historic institution. That was the case for University Archivist Matthew Lyons, who joined Drexel University Libraries in June 2016, right in the middle of the University’s 125th anniversary year. He talked to Drexel Quarterly about what it was like starting fresh in the midst of an historical event, and what he’s doing to help Drexel be able to celebrate its 150th anniversary.

Q: You’ve been at Drexel for a little more than a year now. Where did you come from beforehand? What made you want to come to Drexel?

A: Before coming to Drexel, I was at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, here in Philadelphia. I started there in 2001 as an archivist on a grant-funded project and ended up as director of archives. HSP has great people and amazing collections, but after 15 years I was ready for a change. I was interested in the Drexel position because it's an academic environment and offered an opportunity to focus a lot more on managing digital materials.

Q: What was it like working at the University — and, really, starting to work at the University — during it’s big 125th anniversary year?

A: University Archives is a major keeper of Drexel's historical record, so the 125th anniversary brought our department a lot more attention and recognition than we had generally received before. But I actually started at Drexel midway through the anniversary year, in June 2016. That means I got to build on a tremendous amount of spadework that others in University Archives did before I arrived — above all, Anita Lai, our archives technician. For example, all of the research for the book “Building Drexel: The University and Its City, 1891-2016,” the new history of the University edited by Richardson Dilworth and Scott Knowles, was already done. But I was able to help support other projects, such as the Pearlstein Gallery's exhibit, “125 Years: Drexel and the City.” And Anita and I put together our own little Hagerty Library display of photographs related to “Building Drexel.”

Q: What was your favorite part of the 125th anniversary year? Was there anything that surprised you or that you didn’t know about?

A: I think my favorite thing about the anniversary was the overall way it put history front and center for the University. Drexel has a reputation of being very forward-looking, and not paying a lot of attention to its own past. But for the 125th, you had a whole series of public events and lectures and articles in DrexelNow looking at the past from lots of different angles. You had a whole crop of students hired to do research for the “Building Drexel” book, coming into the archives and getting excited about the cool stuff they uncovered. And you had President Fry standing up and talking about how history was important to the University. I’m hoping we can hold onto some of that historical awareness going forward.

Q: What role do you think archives, and preserving history, should play at a university, especially one like Drexel?

A: The University Archives is about documenting the history of the whole Drexel community. We want to record the big institutional decisions and groundbreaking research, but we also want to document what it feels like being an international student, or how someone's co-op experience affected their career. We document the present as well as the past, because how we study and work now will seem like ancient history 50 years from now. The archives is also about sharing that history — not just letting people come and read it, but finding ways to make it come alive for people. Drexel has changed enormously in the past 20 years, not to mention the past 50 or 100, and that change is going to continue. There’s a lot to be learned from that process, but that means we have to preserve the records and use them.

Q: What is University Archives doing to prepare for its 150th anniversary? Is there anything new or different that you've implemented in archives since starting that would relate?

A: Maybe the biggest thing we're doing to prepare is improving our setup for managing electronic records. This is the big growth area for archives as a field, and there are all kinds of challenges. How do we preserve digital files so they’ll still be usable in 20, 50, 100 years, when the storage media become obsolete so fast, and when software applications get upgraded or replaced so quickly? How are we going to access those records a generation from now, when people will be using new platforms and new media that we can barely anticipate? Twenty-five years ago, when Drexel celebrated its 100th anniversary, the web was in its infancy, and there were no smartphones and no social media. So if we look forward 25 years, to the 150th, what kind of digital environment will we be looking at?

One of the things we’ve been doing in University Archives, we’ve strengthened our web-archiving program. This is a program the department started in 2009, contracting with the Internet Archive’s “Archive-It” service to preserve Drexel University web pages. Recently we’ve improved the description of the web-archived pages so it’s easier to find what you want, and we’ve expanded the program so that all of the colleges are included at least at a preliminary level. We’re going to continue developing this further, and I hope we can also explore ways to archive some of the University’s social media output, which is uncharted territory for us.

Another initiative that’s a focus right now — for us and other departments in the libraries — is electronic theses and dissertations, or “ETDs.” Right now, University Archives collects each dissertation in both hard-copy and electronic formats. We’d like to shift that so we just collect the electronic ones, but to do that we have to ensure that we can reliably preserve them for the long term. It’s more than just backing them up, it’s also ensuring that the files aren’t infected, that they don’t degrade, and that people will still be able to use them. That’s challenging enough for text files, but in the coming years more and more theses and dissertations are going to include audio-visual elements or computer code or research data, so the challenges will be even bigger. Addressing all this is going to be an ongoing process.

Q: What are your hopes or goals for University Archives going forward?

A: I hope that University Archives has the support and funding it needs to adequately document Drexel University and the Drexel community, and to make a lot more of our collections available online. I hope we have the visibility so that departments across the University will pass along their historical records, faculty members will offer us their teaching and research files when they retire, and student organizations will offer us documentation of their activities. I hope that professors in lots of different departments bring their students to visit us, that people make use of our holdings for research projects — or just for fun.