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In Conversation with Larry Landis, author of A School for the People: A Photographic History of Oregon State University

November 12, 2015

Today, in celebration of University Press Week (November 8-14), we join dozens of other University Presses for a blog tour. Today's topic is "In Conversation with Authors." We hope you will enjoy our conversation with Larry Landis, author of A School for the People. And we hope you'll take the time to visit the blogs of other participating university presses. You'll be amazed by the breadth, depth, and diversity they represent.

With over 500 photographs and extensive captions, A School for the People presents a monumental visual history of Oregon State University, from its 19th-century origins as a land-grant agricultural college through its evolution into today's state-of-the-art research university. Recently, we sat down with archivist and author Lawrence A. Landis to learn about the genesis of the book.



OSU Press: There are over 500 images in your book, but obviously the Library’s extensive collections could never fit between two covers. How did you go about deciding what images to include and which to cut?

Landis: The Libraries' collections contain tens of thousands of images pertaining to OSU -- an abundance of riches from which to choose.  Obviously I did not review every single image, though I did look at a sizeable percentage of them.

There were iconic images that I characterized as "must be included," such as the portrait of the first graduating class in 1870. But I also wanted to include images that few, if any, people had seen, in some cases since the photographer took the original image.  One collection in particular includes many glass negatives from the 1890s through the 1910s for which we don't have positive prints. Several images from this collection appear in the book, including two large format, hand colored, glass positives. They are stunning, and as far as I know, have never been published -- at least in color.

In determining what to include, I strove to strike a balance among time periods (though with a little more focus on the late 19th and early 20th centuries); among academic colleges, schools, departments, programs; between academics and research; between campus life and campus organizations; and most importantly, between people -- faculty, staff, alumni, and students. It was also important to show that OSU is and has been Oregon's statewide university.  The book includes photos beyond the Corvallis campus -- of branch experiment stations, the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, and the Cascades Campus in Bend.

When I ran across a compelling image, I made a photocopy of it and assigned it to one or more potential chapters.  From those chapter groupings I selected images that I thought would tell the story of the chapter of which it was a part. The first draft of the manuscript included 670 images, and this past spring we decided that the final version could include around 500. A few of the 170 images that I cut duplicated other images in some manner -- those were easy.  Cutting others was more difficult; it boiled down to the identifying those images in each chapter that were the most essential to telling the OSU story.
OSU Press: What was the hardest part about researching and writing the book?

Landis: Apart from reducing the images from 670 to 500, one of the most difficult aspects of research and writing was verifying the myriad of facts that are included. I relied on a wide variety of source material -- both primary and secondary -- not all of which was in agreement.  For instance, I had read one source that indicated that OSU's band program started in 1890, which would have made it the oldest band in the Pac-12. I did a last minute check of that fact, which ultimately led me to a newspaper article that indicated the date was in late 1891, which means we are tied with UC-Berkeley for the oldest Pac-12 band program. There were some disappointed folks in Benton Hall.

Another challenge was looking through many of the glass negatives mentioned previously.  Their fragile nature requires very careful handling, which means that it takes much longer to look through a collection of glass negatives than any other format.

Finding recent images of certain buildings and people also proved to be challenging at times.  Fortunately News & Research Communications has a nice selection of contemporary images on its Flickr site, and their staff members are excellent photographers. Several N&RC photos appear in the book.  In order to get a good photo of one particular building, I asked a SCARC student assistant, who happened to be a photography major, rush out at the end of the day to shoot a series of images. This was in November, so lighting conditions at 4:30 in the afternoon were less than ideal. However, the end result was superb -- a testimony to the student's photography skills. I wonder if folks who purchase or look through the book can identify which photo this is?

OSU Press: What was one discovery you made while researching the book – something you hadn’t known about OSU that surprised you?

Landis: Prior to working on the book, I knew that OSU had a long history of hops research. What I didn't know was how far back it extended. In reading through a college annual report, I discovered that hops had been planted by the Experiment Station in the early 1890s -- meaning that we've been doing hops research for nearly 125 years.

From this same annual report I discovered the extent to which the Experiment Station was conducting variety trials in 1891 -- just a few years after its establishment in 1888. In 1891 the Station planted 87 varieties of apples, 57 varieties of grapes, 44 varieties of gooseberries, 9 varieties each of raspberries, blackberries and currants, and 25 varieties of strawberries. Fifty five varieties of tomatoes and 27 varieties of cabbage were also trialed in 1891. That is an incredible amount of horticultural diversity, and I like to think that early research contributed to the wide variety of fruits and vegetables grown in Oregon today.

From a more recent era, I discovered that OSU had a prominent presence in the Vietnam War Moratorium Day March on October 15, 1969. OSU was not known for protests over the war, but on that day several hundred OSU students, and likely some faculty, marched from the Memorial Union quad to Corvallis's Central Park, just west of downtown. The book includes a very poignant photo of the marchers in Central Park. And in 1968 scores of people participated in a march in memory Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., shortly after he was assassinated on April 4 of that year.

OSU Press: You’ve done a lot of research into the built environment at OSU. What is your favorite building on campus, and why?

Landis: I've been involved in historic preservation longer than I've been an archivist. Consequently the built environment and its historical contexts are very important to me. I became intrigued with OSU's built environment soon after I started here in 1991, and for the past several years have been doing in-depth research on one architect whose work has shaped our campus more than any other. John V. Bennes designed about 35 of OSU's buildings between 1907 and 1941, and also designed additions or renovations to many others. Two of my favorite buildings are designs that Bennes made with Harry Herzog, the partner in his firm in the mid 1920s through the early 1930s. They are Weatherford Hall and the Women's Building.  Weatherford's design is readily recognizeable, and the Women's Building is such an elegant design. Much of its interior has been well maintained and retains its mid-1920s feel.

I have an affinity for Benton Hall, since it is the oldest building on campus.  One of the carpenters who worked on it, Samuel G. McFadden, was also the builder of the 1890 farmhouse that my wife and I live in. The Memorial Union is also a wonderful landmark and one of just a few buildings designed by an OSU alumnus --in this case, Lee Arden Thomas (class of 1907).

OSU Press: Are there any specific collections in the Special Collections and Archives Research Center that you wish more people knew about, or made better use of?

Landis: Most researchers know about or are able to find our major photo collections. However, there are many smaller, less well known collections that contain some great images.  These were some of the first collections that I reviewed in working on the pictorial history.  Another category of underutilized collections are the many, many scrapbooks compiled by students from about 1900 and into the 1930s. They are incredibly rich documentation of student life, and each one is different.

I also used the course catalogs extensively, which many people know about, but they may not know they are all available online (http://oregondigital.org/sets/general-catalogs). Another textual source which proved to be extremely valuable and that many folks either don't know about or overlook are the annual and biennial reports from the early 1870s to the turn of the century.  Though they sometimes painted an overly rosy picture of the college, they were nonetheless extremely valuable sources of early information about our institution.

OSU Press: If you could go back in time to one moment in the history of OSU, which moment would you choose?

Landis: That is a hard call, as there were so many compelling moments. Looking back to 1868, I would loved to have been in the gallery of the legislative assembly when the house of representatives designated Corvallis College as the land grant institution. There was some political chicanery involved with that, as Willamette University really had the edge as a much older and well established academic institution.

One of the sporting events that I wish I could have been at was OSU's 3-0 football victory over previously undefeated and no. 1 ranked USC on November 11, 1967.  This game was one of the most significant victories in OSU's athletics history and helped that year's team earn the moniker of "Giant Killers."

I also wish that I could've been present for noted landscape architect John Olmsted's June 1909 visit to campus. It was from this visit that Olmsted formulated OSU's first campus plan -- a plan that in many respects we still adhere to today. Olmsted recommended the use of brick and terra cotta for the exterior of buildings. John Bennes took that to heart in almost all of his designs. And we still see that influence today, in recent buildings such as Austin Hall and the Student Experience Center.  History is truly a continuum.

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