The yellowing document in his hand was to have a profound effect on the earnest young Wayne State University undergrad.
The document was an original historical record, the first he had ever touched. “I was flabbergasted,” said Robert Marshall. “This was history in the raw.”
An ardent “union man,” Marshall had gone to the Walter Reuther Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs to do labor movement research. In its corridors, he realized he had found his El Dorado. “Here was this gigantic world of knowledge filled with diaries, original correspondence, artifacts and materials I could interpret for myself. I didn’t have to wait for another researcher to interpret them, and take his or her word for it.”
Thirty-three years later, as head archivist of Cal State Northridge’s Oviatt Library, Marshall’s sense of awe is intact. He shares it with students in his demanding archival methods, theory and management courses in CSUN’s History Department.
It will take well-trained archivists who share his mission to mitigate Marshall’s worst nightmare: the disappearance of electronically stored source materials. “My fear is that we’re going to lose the late 20th and early 21st century” to the delete button, said Marshall.
Guided by his belief that archivists are all that stand between the collective human memory and chaos, 34 of Marshall’s former students now work in presidential libraries, film archives, military museums and historical societies up and down the state.
Marshall early on carved out his own turf—Southern California history. He was point man in the creation of CSUN’s San Fernando Valley History Digital Library, helped collect and archive memorabilia chronicling Southern California’s Latino and Chicano history, and for a decade chaired the L.A. as Subject Archives Forum, bringing together historical repositories to preserve Los Angeles’ documentary heritage.
For his efforts, The Los Angeles City Historical Society has added Marshall to the pantheon of distinguished preservationists who have earned the David G. Cameron Preservation Award.
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