Chris Barth '93
Fast forward to the past: Chris Barth '93 puts Kenyon's history online
A chronicler of William Foster Peirce, the College president who brought Kenyon into the twentieth century, Christopher D. Barth '93 began his own employment at the College on the cusp of the twenty-first. His position as a librarian and technology consultant as well as the overseer of the College archives makes him Kenyon's resident Janus. He maintains the historian's backward gaze while, as a library technologist, he helps to move the College into the future.
Barth was either prescient or lucky when he chose a graduate school that offered a dual-degree program. The honors history major emerged from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with master's degrees in history and library and information science, equipped for his current dual-faceted position at Kenyon as librarian and technology consultant. Although he spends most of his time providing technology support to five academic departments, handling every-thing from broken hard drives to designing and planning high-end digital video workstations, he loves the archives, which he first encountered as a history major fascinated by the College's past.
Barth wrote his senior honors thesis on the forty-one-year administration of Kenyon's twelfth president, William Foster Peirce. A visionary who led the College from the end of the last century until 1937, Peirce made the institution into a recognizable forebear of Kenyon as it exists today.
In an attempt to balance the top-down view of Peirce's administration gleaned from official College documents with the bottom-up experience of students, Barth solicited personal anecdotes, memories, and even gossip from some two hundred fifty alumni who had attended Kenyon while Peirce was at the helm. Recollections provided by these alumni brought to quirky life the figure most know only from bland official portraits. One alumnus shared a vivid description of Peirce's lecturing style, reporting that those who sat in the first row were likely to leave the room wet, as his was a moist delivery.
Barth could accommodate only a handful of these priceless recollections in his thesis. The correspondence from alumni makes such lively reading, however, that in 1993 the College's bookstore published the thesis, entitled Seeking the Kenyon Ideal, with an appendix containing the full set of alumni letters. (The volume is no longer available, although the bookstore may reprint it in the future.)
Next year, Barth will offer a course in the history department on the College's past, incorporating a class project to generate Internet resources on Kenyon history. The course filled up quickly during preregistration, with a waiting list of students eager to take it. In this, as in his other professional endeavors, Barth shows an eye for combining traditional research methods with the latest wave of technological advancement.
The fascination that propelled Barth into the archives as a student underlies one of his current professional projects: putting the papers of the Kenyon Review online. He envisions a detailed inventory of the old series, yielding a searchable database of materials. Interested researchers will be able to call up scanned images of actual manuscript pages, perusing documents without leaving their desks. As many renowned writers have been connected with the Kenyon Review, Barth expects the project to be used by unforeseen numbers of scholars, thus greatly increasing the College's visibility on the Internet.
Barth sees the advantages, and the contradictions, inherent in his double perspective. On the one hand, he lauds technologies that will make Kenyon's rich history accessible to scholars far from the Hill. On the other, he is keenly aware that the College's current history is being recorded in new ways. The great volume of e-mail, for example, in which the "e" stands for ephemeral as well as electronic, will redefine what future historians can know.
In addition, Barth nurtures a fond vision of Kenyon in the days before the full effects of the Industrial Revolution had been felt in Gambier. He tries to imagine what life was like here when mail and newspapers took weeks to arrive, when the village truly was remote in a way that, for better and for worse, it never will be again.
This double vision also colored Barth's experience of living in Alaska for two years, while he was employed as librarian and archivist at Alaska's largest newspaper, the Anchorage Daily News. "You can enjoy all the conveniences of living in a modern metropolis, yet if you drive ten minutes outside of the city of Anchorage, you're completely in the wilderness. Your cell phone won't work any more, and there are bear and moose crawling around. That's a difficult feeling to get anywhere else in the United States these days." Barth says he values Alaska as a place where there is still a strong sense of the balance of nature, and where people are part of the landscape and part of the ecosystem, as opposed to being the ones who control it.
Although he wasn't engaged in a job search when the Kenyon position became available, Barth had always said that if he had an opportunity to come back to Gambier, he would take it. His wife, Rebecca Palash Barth '93, who earned a master's degree at the University of Alaska, will teach English at Mount Vernon High School in the fall. Former members of the Chasers, the Barths now sing in the Community Choir, where they stand shoulder to shoulder with many other Kenyonites.
Barth maintains contact with student groups by volunteering, especially at Christian student events. He also enjoys getting to know more alumni by giving talks on College history at various gatherings, regaling alumni, parents, and students with marvelous bits of Kenyon lore.
One such bit involves the experience of a student who arrived at the College in 1829. "In his first view of what was then the main instruction building, erected a year earlier on a site near the present Ransom Hall, the student saw a pair of human feet protruding through the side of the shoddy wooden structure," Barth recounts. "The feet, he discovered, belonged to a student who, while reading, was trying to warm his feet in the sun."
The historian in Barth wants to preserve and pass on such recollections of a Kenyon predating the collegiate Gothic architectural style that characterizes the campus today, which largely came into being under the watchful eye of William Foster Peirce.
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