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Alan Virta

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For Alan Virta, there wasn't much waffling when it came time to choose a career. The Maryland native knew that history was going to be his future, it just came down to how and where. The answer came from out West.

For the last 20 years, Virta has been the head of special collections and the university archivist at Boise State. From his office in the university's library, he shares the school's past with the community and makes sure future generations of students will know where they came from. Virta took a break from his preparations for Boise State's 75th anniversary to talk to BW.

How did you get into a job like this?

I was a history major in college. Even before that, I knew history was my favorite topic. And one of the ways to work in history is to work with archives and manuscripts.

What brought you to Idaho?

The job. I went to work at the Library of Congress, and I worked there for 12 years. [It] is, of course, a very interesting place to work. The world's largest library—20 million books. Then I had a fellowship down at the University of Southern Mississippi, and I decided, "Boy, I really like working back on a college campus." As much as I liked the Library of Congress, instead of being part of a huge organization, I liked going to a smaller library and basically being able to run your own shop, your own department. So, after my fellowship, I went back to the Library of Congress and I thought about it for a while, and I started looking for jobs at colleges. And there was this job in Boise, Idaho, that sounded great and I applied for it, and I got it. I've been here ever since.

How do you decide what gets archived?

We, of course, like any profession, have guidelines. What to keep and what not to keep. Most of the paperwork that crosses people's desks is not necessary for long-term retention. We keep things that have long-term legal value, long-term administrative value or long-term historical value.

We keep minutes of committee meetings, the important correspondence of university officers. We keep university publications—we have the newspapers going back to 1933, back to when the paper was founded. Catalogs going back all that way, schedules of classes, student lists and the like. In some respects, it's subjective. One hundred years ago, people who were running historical societies would say, "Oh, this is just a woman's diary recording her housework and what she did around the home or on the farm. We don't need to keep that because she's not a senator or a congressman." Well, today of course, women's history is extremely interesting. All aspects, domestic aspects, professional aspects. Boy, if you found a diary of a woman in the 1880s that she kept on the farm, that's very prized. So, ideas change. If anybody ever thinks it's important to do a history of light bulb orders at Boise State University, unfortunately, we're not keeping those records.

How many documents or volumes do you have here?

Tens of thousands of file folders. We tend to think in terms of file folders unless something is an extremely prized document. We don't really index down to the document level.

What's the most challenging aspect of the job?

The big challenge today are electronic records, because oftentimes things don't get into the file folders. So the National Archives [and] the state government are developing standards for trying to retain electronic records. One of the big problems is 10 years ago, people were giving us 3-inch discs. Now there really aren't any machines that can read 3-inch discs.

How do you get your materials?

Departments and offices do send us things. From time to time, we remind them. It has to be a cooperative process.

Do you get private donations?

The university archives is just one aspect of our work. We have the papers of Senator Frank Church; he was in Congress and the U.S. Senate for 24 years. We have about 800 boxes of his records. Governor Cecil Andrus gave us his papers. Senator Len Jordan, Congressman Larry LaRocco, a number of state legislators. People like Robert Limbert, who explored the Sawtooth Mountains and Craters of the Moon. Nell Shipman, who made silent films in Idaho. We have the archives of the Episcopal Diocese of Idaho.

We have what's called the Idaho Writers Archives, which are the papers of Idaho writers, their correspondence with other authors, rough drafts of their writings, memorabilia.

What are some of the pieces of the collection that stand out?

President Chaffee was president from the '30s to the '60s. He he had a file that was called student disciplinary problems back in the day when colleges were a little more involved in the personal lives of their students. That file, we were looking through that, and there was a newsletter of the Boise cell of the Communist Party from 1939. We have a historian who used to be history professor here at Boise State, who's now retired. One of his areas of expertise is radical politics in Idaho—Socialism, Communism—and he had never heard that there was once a Boise Chapter of the U.S. Communist Party. President Chaffee obviously thought that was a disciplinary problem, so he put that newsletter in that file.

We also have samples of the original blue turf and the old green turf. So the only green turf at Boise State is here in the archives.

What is the most valuable item you have in the archives?

It's all very subjective. The photos are extremely valuable.

Do you have a personal favorite?

What I find myself drawn to a lot are just the old images, the photos. They just show what life was like. Things were just so different in the 1930s and '40s and '50s at colleges, and photos really express those differences. And of course I like the samples of the stadium turf.

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