January 28, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 32°F

Life & Culture

Archivist keeps tabs on Ithaca College’s history

The fifth floor of the Ithaca College Library may often seem completely empty, but there is always one person typing away at her computer, hidden behind piles of scripts and documents that have collected on her desk from throughout the college’s history: Bridget Bower, the college’s archivist of 27 years, sifts through overflowing binders and boxes, using her passion for history to keep track of the college’s past.

“It appealed to me to work with the primary documents, the documents that history is made from,” she said. “I love working with the raw material of history and making sure something will be there for the next generation to show what went on in the last generation and all the way back.”

Bower graduated with a degree in religious studies from Swarthmore College, and through her required courses she developed an interest in history. During her junior year she attended Pennsylvania State University as a part of a transfer program in which she took her first two archive management courses. It was then that she realized her passion for history would translate well into a passion for archiving. In 1988, Bower joined the staff as the college’s first archivist.

“Ithaca was interested in me, and I was interested back,” she said.

As archivist, Bower is responsible for storing records, files and correspondences from throughout the college’s past and present. Bower is also responsible for the Rod Serling Archives, a collection of television and movie scripts, films and awards from “The Twilight Zone” creator, as well as his personal library.

She uses the resources in the archives to help many students and professors find articles that might be useful for classes. In past years, Bower taught a seminar at the college called “Adventures in History,” now taught by Pearl Ponce, associate professor in the history department. She also helps many other classes access the archives for specific assignments. This semester, she worked with Chrissy Guest, assistant professor of media arts, sciences and studies, who teaches a class called Fiction Field Production I. The assignment requires students to access the Rod Serling Archives in order to write and film an episode of “The Twilight Zone” from the perspective of one of the extras in the show.

Guest said Bower was a great resource.

“[She is] so knowledgable and also so accommodating to students,” Guest said. “It’s just unreal.”

Sophomore Gabrielle Hendrix participated in the Fiction Field Production I assignment and worked with Bower directly.

“She was really hands-on,” Hendrix said. “She went through basically the whole archive. We were able to look through some of the scripts, which was really amazing.”

Not only does Bower work with the college’s history, but she’s been a part of its history as well. Bower has seen three different presidents of the college: James Whalen, Peggy Ryan Williams and now Tom Rochon. She also had an integral role in helping the college prepare for its first centennial in 1982 and has served on the Library Committee of the Faculty Council between 1994 and 1996, during which Whalen’s leadership was coming into question at the college. At some point, she said she even did yoga alongside former president Williams.

One of the standout events of her time as archivist was the downsizing of the college in the mid-1990s under Whalen, which saw a dramatic decline in student enrollment. As a result, Bower said Whalen “shrank the college.”

“The group that I came in with was hit the hardest,” Bower said. “A lot of my friends didn’t get tenure.” Looking more positively at the downsizing, she said, “parking was less problematic though — that was one of the few bright spots.”

Bower finds inspiration for the future in the college’s past. One piece of the college’s history she finds the most fascinating is how hard the college was hit during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

“The college almost went under during the Depression,” she said. “They mortgaged everything, even the silverware … The college was on the edge of dying. But it didn’t.”

Bower said the most fulfilling aspect of her job is helping people find what they are looking for.
“What I love is people keep asking me new questions, and then I have to think about the records that I have and think about where the answer to their questions might be,” she said. “I hope I never get so jaded that I assume I know every question that could be asked of my records — oh, the college’s records.”