Kelly Larson: Keeping History Alive
The phone rang and Kelly Larson, newly hired as Stetson University’s archivist, answered her first reference call in the basement of the duPont-Ball Library.
A man, working on a book, asked how much the university’s namesake John B. Stetson had donated to the school through the years?
Larson set out to find the answer. She was told about old college financial ledgers housed upstairs in the library. She found one labeled, “Gifts,” from the 1880s through the 1930s, each item listed by the donor’s name and amount by academic year.
“Just seeing that ledger and seeing all the things that he gave, you really get a sense of why this is Stetson University,” said Larson, who was hired in January as Stetson’s first professionally trained archivist. “He was around for whatever the school needed. He was really interested in keeping this fledgling school at the time going.”
His financial donations totaled $314,133.69 – or about $9 million in today’s dollars, according to one currency calculator that Larson used. And that didn’t include donated property, other in-kind gifts and donations from other family members.
“I found that even after John B. Stetson passed away, his widow Elizabeth Stetson and his son John B. Stetson Jr. continued to give every year. Every year, they gave something to the school and it wasn’t just money. It was deeds, it was gifts in-kind. If the school needed coal over the winter, they would bring coal or firewood over. A horse and a wagon were part of it at some point, electric lights, all kinds of things.”
Kelly said she loves the “detective work” of digging through university archives. At her previous job at The Sage Colleges in Troy, New York, she was college archivist, reference librarian and an adjunct professor of public history – a role that allowed her to share her passion with students.
“I feel like archives should be a laboratory for students interested in research and primary sources,” she said. “Every box of material that I work with or every folder that I open, I’m learning new things about different periods of time.
“Being able to share the unique heritage that Stetson has puts me in a really interesting position. That’s why I do what I do. It’s no fun if I can’t share it with other people. There’s kind of a stereotype of archivists being quiet basement dwellers who don’t like to talk to people. But I’m the opposite of that. I love bringing people in and showing people things that I think are cool.”
- Stetson Memorabilia from old athletics uniforms and T-shirts, to political stickers and pins, to posters for student events – all with photos and descriptions available online.
- The Shaw Collection for late Congressman E. Clay Shaw (1939 – 2013), who was a Double Hatter (B.S. ’61, J.D. ’66). The collection includes his Congressional papers while representing the 97th District in South Florida from 1981 to 2007.
- The Cleland Collection for Stetson alumnus Joseph Maxwell “Max” Cleland ’64, former U.S. Senator from Georgia and Vietnam veteran wounded in combat. The collection includes his Vietnam diaries, speeches, military uniforms and photos with U.S. presidents.
- A large number of subject files related to Stetson’s history, such as the history of campus buildings and the Holler Fountain.
- The University Archives, including the official and unofficial records of the school, including catalogs, minutes of the Faculty Senate meetings and Board of Trustees meetings in the 1950s and 1960s, and correspondence of the former college presidents.
With the help of her student workers, Larson is continuing to slowly inventory the materials, catalog them for easy reference, preserve and digitize them – ensuring the materials are easy to find online and will last for many decades to come.
“That’s something I would really like to stress,” Larson added. “We’re a quiet department. A lot of people don’t think of us, but as archivists, we safeguard the history of the school.”
Stetson’s large archive and number of inquiries from inside and outside the Stetson Community convinced university administrators that the time had come to hire a professional archivist, said Sue Ryan, the Betty Drees Johnson dean of the Library & Learning Technologies for the duPont-Ball Library.
“For many years, dedicated staff with a love of Stetson history have managed the Archives – maintaining files, preserving memorabilia and answering thousands of questions,” Ryan said. “Despite their dedication and significant contribution to moving our Archives forward, none of them were trained archivists. I had advocated for years that our Archives had matured to a point that we needed a professionally educated archivist who would bring a broad knowledge of archival ‘best practices’ to Stetson.
“We found exactly that in Kelly, who not only has graduate education in archives, but also has had experience in running a college Archives and Special Collections department,” Ryan explained. “We consider our Archives one of the library’s ‘distinctives’ that has received national attention – and I believe that Kelly will make our Archives and Special Collections even more prominent in years to come.”
Name: Kelly Larson
Title: Stetson University Archivist
Education: B.A. in History with a minor in Asian Studies and a M.L.I.S. with concentration in Archives from Louisiana State University.
Family: Married to Andy Larson, a tuba player and teacher, who is working toward becoming a Florida certified Firefighter/EMT. They are expecting their first child in October. Her in-laws live in Port Orange and her mother-in-law, Barbara Larson, performs as an accompanist for the School of Music. (The family is not related to Andrew Larson, D.M.A., associate dean of the School of Music).