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Student essay: Into the belly of the beast — my time with Special Collections

Lloyd Sealy Library Digital Collections

Items from the Special Collections

Research in action: student spotlight (from the Spring 2014 Newsletter)

Jakub Gaweda is 2014 graduating senior majoring in Global History.

Last November, I was approached by Prof. Gerald Markowitz to work on a research project for John Jay’s upcoming 50th anniversary. Prof. Markowitz, along with a few others, was asked to head a committee to create a timeline exhibit for the College. I gladly accepted the offer to join them, recognizing that the experience would greatly increase my own research skills.

As I began to attend the exhibit meetings, I quickly learned the scope of my work. I would look through books of newspaper clippings located in the Special Collections room, compiling a list of events at the college: plays, sports, funding received, grants, guest speakers, etc. Thankfully, two more student researchers were brought on to help me with what seemed at times a Sisyphean task. 

Over the months of January, February, and March, I became intimately acquainted with the Special Collections room, the Library Conference room, John Jay’s newspaper clippings, and its archival photographs in ways I could have never imagined. When I closed my eyes, everything was sepia. At certain times of the day, I smelled aging newspaper, and if I listened carefully, I could hear the crinkle of paper and the flipping of binder pages. I cursed when the Library was only open till 10pm on weekdays. 

Levity aside, I found the research fascinating. While I enjoyed learning about the big events of John Jay, including CUNY’s financial crisis in 1976 and the student takeovers in 1989 in response to rising tuition costs, what I found most compelling were the small stories. Over the course of my research, certain names would begin to reappear every now and again: a notable basketball player, a professor, or a student who won a scholarship. Often surfacing only in small blurbs with a few sentences, these stories often did much to humanize the history of the College. Seeing these small narratives unfold literally before my eyes made me cognizant of my own place at John Jay and how short my time at the school is, as just one of thousands of other current and former students. I felt the same way when looking at the photographs of John Jay’s history. Photos of student and campus life were just as interesting as Mother Teresa or Bill Cosby at the college. 

I also can’t forget to thank the fantastic Library staff for all the help they have provided me. From Prof. Ellen Sexton to Robin Davis, who both directly helped me manage the materials, to every single other librarian I may have at one point or another asked (hopefully kindly) to open some door for me. It made my work that much easier and more enjoyable.

It’s a good thing that I did this research when John Jay was only 50, as I am not sure I envy the researcher who, in another 50 years, will have to face an even more daunting task. Maybe—with any luck—he will find some mention of me in the records.  

Jakub Gaweda

Editor’s note: in addition to their incredible work on the 50th Anniversary Exhibit, Jakub and his classmates, Kayla Talbot and Brittany Cabanas, have made invaluable contributions to the John Jay College Archives in the Digital Collections by scanning archival items, researching photograph subjects, and creating metadata. See their work online at dc.lib.jjay.cuny.edu! —Robin D

Classified Information, the Library's newsletter »

Spring 2014 Newsletter (PDF) »