Staff Profile: Keepers of the Past

  • Michael Lear (left) and Christopher Raab  

Take the stairs down to the basement of Shadek-Fackenthal Library. Then take a right. Go past the sepia tone photos of Franklin & Marshall sports teams and clubs from the ’40s to the ’70s. Take another right and enter F&M Archives and Special Collections.

This is the domain of Christopher Raab and Michael Lear, the duo who preserve the interesting, the old and the curious items that are F&M’s past.

Raab, 40, is the College archives and special collections librarian. He worked for the State University of New York as an academic librarian before coming to Franklin & Marshall seven years ago.

Lear, 40, is the archives and special collections assistant. He studied history and museum studies in college. Before coming to F&M nine years ago, he worked as an assistant retail produce manager at Willey Farms, Delaware’s largest farm market.

Together, they are responsible for maintaining the College Archives that contain the permanent historical record of Franklin & Marshall College and its related institutions: Franklin College, Marshall College and the Franklin & Marshall Academy. The collection includes documents, photos, publications and faculty and alumni works.

They also look after the College’s Special Collections, including more than 8,000 rare books, the oldest dating back to 1481; the German-American Imprint Collection, which contains German language books, newspapers, almanacs, broadsides and fraktur published in southeastern Pennsylvania prior to 1830; and the manuscript collection, containing the personal papers of prominent local figures and F&M alumni. Also, they keep the map, print, poster, newspaper and photograph collections, including posters from WWI, 18th- and 19th-century American newspapers and Civil War photography.

“The list goes on and on,” Raab said. “We have a Sumerian Cuneiform tablet dating to 2050 BCE. That’s definitely our oldest item.”

This is clearly a dream job for both of them.

And you can see it on their faces as they show off their “vault,” a large room stacked with papers and books from floor to ceiling. They both admit there is a certain “gee whiz” aspect to their work.

After all, they have, to name just a few things, the sword belt worn by Lancaster native Gen. John Fulton Reynolds during the Civil War, an orangutan mask from the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes and an autography collection with documents dating back to 13th-century England.

“We’re surrounded by history,” Lear said.

Raab and Lear spend much of their day working with students and faculty exploring primary research materials. They also work with community members interested in local history.

“And we get research requests from all over the world,” Raab said.

“We get a lot of administrative requests for items that celebrate the College’s history,” Lear said.

Alumni Relations taps the archivists each year before Homecoming for photos and information, he said. Franklin & Marshall Magazine also features photographs from the archives.

When not elbow deep in rare books and papers, Lear spends his time volunteering with the Middletown Main Street Program, a community-based revitalization group in Middletown, Pa., where he lives.

Raab, a resident of Manheim Borough, is the father of two daughters, ages 1 and 3. “So I spend my spare time changing diapers,” he said, beaming.

In recent years, the archives have gone modern.

Lear and Raab have a blog, a Web site dedicated to assisting and documenting faculty and student research, and several other sites that can be found on the Archives homepage.

The pair recently began digitizing F&M student newspapers, including The College Reporter and the Student Weekly. They’re working with a vendor, Olive Software, to put the database online.

“This has to be the best job on campus,” Raab said.

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