Then AND Now
LaGuardia Community College celebrates 40 years of challenging expectactions
Then AND Now: The LaGuardia and Wagner Archives
The LaGuardia and Wagner Archives has always set itself apart from other repositories. Unlike others that lock their collections in cold rooms where few venture, ours has always opened its rich collections to faculty and students and those outside the College community. Now it is taking another bold step by reaching out to an even larger audience via the Internet.
But, like every LaGuardia innovation, it all began when a member of the College community asked, "What if?"
It had long been a vision of LaGuardia's first president Joseph Shenker: to establish an archive named after the College's namesake that would house the collection of the most famous mayor in the history of New York City.
But, to the young president, it would be more than a repository. This would be a facility that would help to establish LaGuardia as a serious center for scholarship.
"Joe was always pushing the definition of what a community should be," said Dr. Richard K. Lieberman, the Director of the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives. "He cringed at the negative stereotype that community colleges were simply junior colleges. He wanted this place to shine and to show the world what a community college is really all about, which ss scholarship, sophistication, teaching and learning."
In 1982 the LaGuardia Archives opened its small office on the seventh floor of the C-building, however, the president's vision was truly realized at the end of the year when he received a phone call from Marie LaGuardia, the mayor's widow. She was calling her close friend to say she was emptying the basement of her Riverdale home and wanted to know if the college was interested in its contents.
What they uncovered was a treasure trove of the mayor's private papers, hundreds of photos, and precious artifacts that ranged from his World War I gas mask to the ceremonial spade used at the LaGuardia Airport groundbreaking to the beautifully illustrated thank you cards from children he met in Europe after World War II.
With this collection, the Archives now existed. Dr. Shenker appointed Dr. Lieberman as director, and larger space on the 7th floor was carved out for the repository.
Dr. Lieberman, with the assistance of Dr. Janet Lieberman, a professor of psychology, immediately set to work writing grants to support a host of projects—traveling history exhibits, seminars, producing radio shows, copying the mayor's newsreel footage and developing classroom activities around the collection.
In 1983 they received their first major grant—a $50,000 award from the Ford Foundation--to index and microfilm the mayor's personal and public papers in the archives collection. The collection, which was scattered in the Municipal Archives, would have been lost if the Archives had not taken on this monumental project.
The care the archives took in preserving LaGuardia's papers caught the attention of other agencies and former mayors. The New York City Housing Authority asked the Archives to house its rich public housing collection. Mayor Robert F. Wagner offered his collection, but on one condition: the name of the repository would have to be changed to The LaGuardia and Wagner Archives. The newly named archives then got calls from Abraham Beame, Edward I. Koch and the New York City Council. Dr. Lieberman's research on the Steinway and Sons Piano Company led to the gift of its valuable collection.
The latest acquisition came in 2012, from longtime LaGuardia advocate former New York State Senator Serphin R. Maltese, who donated a bound volume of news clippings from the Woodhaven-based Leader Observer. The clippings, covering the years from 1932 to 1967, document the activities of the Women's Republican Association of Woodhaven and other important events.
"By bringing in these papers, we broadened the definition of the Archives," said Dr. Lieberman.
As each collection came in it became the centerpiece of history calendars, fourth grade curriculums and other educational projects.
Today, Tara Hickman, Educational Associate, and Dr. Steven Levine, Coordinator for Educational Programs, work with faculty and students from across the disciplines—philosophy, business, social science and engineering—who look to the Archives as a valuable educational resource. Each year, over 2,000 students use the collections.
"What really differentiates us from other archives is this commitment to teaching and learning," said Dr. Lieberman. "On a daily basis we are being used by students and faculty. It was and will always be about education and working with our faculty and students."
The Archives has warmly embraced technology. On YouTube there are a series of videos from its major collections—LaGuardia, Wagner, Beame, Koch, the New York City Housing Authority, Steinway and Sons and the Queens Local History—as well as videos on immigration, and civil rights and human rights. Historical photos extracted from the community history projects can be viewed on Flickr. It has a presence on Facebook, and it even has its own app: "This Date in History" on both Apple and Android platforms.
"We used to reach hundreds of people who walked through the door every year, and now we are getting tens of thousands of people who would never have any contact with us," said Dr. Lieberman. "We are now reaching them in ways we couldn't before."
The daring part, said Dr. Steven Levine, Coordinator for Educational Programs, is providing a learning experience that will grab people who are increasingly relying on their hand-held computers to obtain information. "It is easy to be sensational on the Internet," said Dr. Levine, "but the frontier we are facing is learning how to get our educational materials on people's screens."
The Archives is off to a promising start. A YouTube video on the making of a Steinway piano has already attracted 30,000 viewers; and 2,000 visitors have watched former Mayor Koch's interview on his administration's battle over graffiti.
Its newly launched app, "This Date in History," which uses the milestones and photos from the history calendars and websites to deliver daily interesting events in U.S. history for every day of the year, is already finding a niche among the history apps. Just 12 days after launching the app more than 2,000 people have checked it out.
"The technology is bringing history to life," said Dr. Lieberman.