University Archivist Maggie Kimball to ride off into the sunset this summer

L.A. Cicero Maggie Kimball at Desk

University archivist Maggie Kimball in her office.

L.A. Cicero Maggie Kimball with horse

University archivist Maggie Kimball brushes her horse Misty.

If the search function on Stanford's homepage were a walking, talking person, it would very likely respond to queries with Margaret Kimball's swift step and measured tone.

Kimball, Stanford's third university archivist, is much more widely known around campus by the nickname she gave upon arriving at the Farm as a freshman, "Maggie." But as the collector and keeper of the history of the university, she might as well be called its institutional memory, or even its human search engine.

Because faculty, staff, students and administrators all grant her the last word on practically anything historical about Stanford, she speaks carefully and precisely. And because she is contacted throughout the day—by everyone from past and present university presidents and alumni to documentary filmmakers, for facts ranging from the well known to the obscure—Kimball is in constant motion.

But the main fact is, while she oversees the University Archives, Kimball will be the first to concede that it's not all cataloged in her head. "I don't know everything," she said. "Yes, I know a lot. But the thing is, I know where to look. Or I know how to go about looking for something. And that's what I think the value of an archivist is."

So, it is in recognition of her 26 and a half years of service to Stanford—about 20 of them as steward of the archives—that the campus prepares to bid Kimball a bittersweet farewell. Her last day is July 2.

The archives

What she leaves behind is more than 30,000 linear feet of material, ranging from administrative and departmental records to faculty teaching materials and student diaries, letters and yearbooks. The archives also includes maps, clothing, blueprints, architectural drawings, photographs, videos and a small but increasing cache of digital files.

Basically, if an item has historic potential—whether it's a program left on a seat at some award ceremony on campus, or a flier handed out by a student art or athletic group—it might belong in the archives.

This explains the time-spanning mentality that all archivists must possess, which, when described by Kimball, sounds both deep and circular: "It's important to collect and preserve elements of today that will then become the past because it's part of how we understand where we are today," she said. "Part of what an archivist does is try and anticipate what's going to be important in the future, and the best way to be able to do that is to understand as much of the past as you can."

The Stanford University Archives was established in 1965 by the Board of Trustees to collect, preserve and make available the historically and legally valuable records of the university and of Stanford community members. Additionally, the archives collects all materials relating to the university's founders and relatives of theirs who were involved either in the family's business ventures or in the creation of the university.

Sources from the archives are intended to support faculty teaching, graduate research and undergraduate theses and course work. The archives, a part of the Stanford University Libraries' Special Collections department, also serves as a major source of historical information for business and academic offices throughout campus.

But beyond serving as arbiter of the official story of Stanford, Kimball has tried to collect anything else that portrays the "fabric" of life on the Farm as it has unfolded over the decades: dorm T-shirts, cardboard fans from Convocation, event posters and, recently, the provost's e-mail about swine flu. Some of the most difficult finds—but in Kimball's book, also some of the most treasured—include the diaries and scrapbooks that capture the essence of campus life from the fleeting perspective of a student.

"We also need to do things like help people understand what it was like to be at this institution at a particular time, how certain things were done," said Kimball, who was given the prestigious Cuthbertson Award in 2003 for her exceptional contributions at Stanford. "It's the fabric of the university."

Kimball's story

Kimball grew up on a farm in Southern California. As a freshman at Stanford in the mid-1970s, Kimball took a course on California and the West and ended up writing a paper on Leland Stanford. So, during her very first year, she was already delving into the archives. She went on to declare a major in history. But as with many seniors, as graduation approached, she felt uncertain about what she should do next.

Following a suggestion by Professor James Sheehan (now emeritus), Kimball asked if she could volunteer to work in the archives, then run by the university's second archivist, Roxanne Nilan, who took her in. Kimball went on to work in the archives for part of her senior year and through the following summer. (Stanford's founding university archivist was Ralph Hansen.)

After that, still somewhat unsure about her future, Kimball took a year off to travel. She did know, however, that she enjoyed what she had been doing. For one assignment under Nilan, Kimball processed materials related to the Great Earthquake of 1906, including letters that students sent home that were drenched in the emotion of that devastating period.

"I just got really hooked," Kimball recalled thinking at the time. "I liked the fact that there was a job that took these materials, organized them and made sure they were available for somebody to come in and use."

During her year off, Kimball also talked with librarians and archivists, eventually going back to school and obtaining master's degrees in library science and in history from Case Western Reserve University. Upon graduation in 1983, Kimball was hired into a project-archivist position that had opened up in the libraries back at Stanford. And for the next seven years, she held various librarian jobs in Special Collections.

Then in 1989, Nilan took a leave of absence to establish an archive at what was then the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, and Kimball was named acting university archivist. A year later, the position became permanent.

Kimball thanks University Librarian Michael Keller for allowing her to take ownership of the archivist position and shape it as she saw fit. The main responsibilities include the development and administration of the archives, along with managing the programs related to collecting, preserving and interpreting the materials. The collection grows by 500 to 1,000 linear feet per year.

Kimball also oversees access to the archives, and back in her office in Green Library, Kimball averages about five requests per day—although there have been days when she has answered up to 20 inquiries. About half of them usually come from Stanford students, staff, faculty, alumni and administrators, with the rest consisting of miscellaneous queries from the general public.

People call to ask if older members of their family went to Stanford, whether the archives has a certain picture on file or if someone was ever on the faculty at the university. Occasionally, Kimball is contacted by individuals who think they have something of historical worth to the institution.

"I have to stop myself from answering," Kimball said of all the calls and e-mails that have come in during these last months of her tenure. "It's like, 'Take your hands off the keyboard!'" she tells herself.

The future

After July 2, many of Kimball's duties will fall to Assistant University Archivist Aimee Morgan, who came to Stanford about six months ago. The archives also is staffed by two specialists, Pat White and Jenny Johnson, and assistant Christy Smith. They process items coming into the archives, help field inquiries, monitor new publications on campus and digitize material.

As for Kimball, she and her husband will move to New Mexico, along with their 27-year-old thoroughbred, Misty. Since she started boarding her at the Stanford Barn five years ago, Kimball has gone out every day to attend to Misty, a ritual that Kimball considers a respite from the bustle of work.

But she also sees how the routine has serendipitously served as a bridge between her professional focus on the history of Stanford and her lifelong love of horses.

"That's been a fun way of combining a personal interest and something Stanford," Kimball said. "It's a chance to sort of connect the real Stanford past with the present and see how the facility that Leland essentially built as a stock breeding and training facility is now being used by students. He would probably be thrilled by it."