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In the Archives: David Hoffman

Our first "In the Archives" essay comes from David Hoffman, UMBC’s Assistant Director of Student Life for Civic Agency and staff advisor to the Student Government Association. David is also a doctoral student in UMBC’s Language, Literacy & Culture program. Several of these roles have brought David to UMBC Special Collections, but in his essay, "Stone Upon Stone," he recalls his time as an undergraduate at UCLA.

Stone Upon Stone

In my sophomore year at UCLA I saw the student government’s inner sanctum for the first time: the Student Body President’s private office. The walls held display cases containing photos, in chronological order, of every student to have served in the position since the campus was founded in 1919. The dates beneath the older photos were impossibly remote, and the hairstyles and poses of the students made them seem ancient, almost mythical. But the layout of the photos, in an unbroken procession through time to the present day, invited me to think about those people as real human beings in whose actual footsteps I was walking every day.

After I was elected President at the end of my junior year, I spent much of the summer exploring the archives of the Daily Bruin, the student newspaper. In those dusty volumes the stories behind the photos on the office wall came to life. Here were recorded all the dramas, the courageous stands and petty gripes, the passion-filled debates, the triumphs and missteps that had created the culture and context for my own daily experiences in student government. Here the mysteries of my world, the underlying unities, the eternal secrets, were hinted at if not revealed. Here the story of the campus became my story, and my transitory experience as an undergraduate became a timeless affiliation.

In the campus library I found additional portals into the vibrant world of the past that persisted all around me. Among them was a thin book of the speeches given at the dedication of the student union building in 1930, when the Governor of California had quoted the architect John Ruskin: “When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for; and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them . . .” I felt that those words had been written specifically for me, and they inspired me to imagine that I was not just an inheritor of stones but potentially a builder in my own right, alive in time, a maker of history.

A few months later I helped plan and host a gathering of the living former Student Body Presidents. We used Post-It notes on the display cases containing the Presidents' portraits to track RSVPs. Blue meant the person would attend; pink, would not attend; yellow, no response at the last known address; white, deceased. A week before the reunion the cases were covered with Post-Its: blues and pinks from the 1960s through the 1980s, with a few yellows and a white or two popping up as you moved backward in time, from right to left along the wall, and then, from around 1932 back to 1919, a sea of white. That was when I learned, really and truly in my gut, that one day I would die. And that wasn't exactly cheery news, but it was liberating in same way my trips to the newspaper and library archives had been: I was living history.

That sense of being grounded in time and in the narrative of a community is something I both feel and am working to inspire at UMBC. In browsing the fragile pages of the earliest issues of The Retriever (before it became The Retriever Weekly) and watching videotaped interviews with early UMBC alums, I’ve been able to trace the origins of both the Student Government Association with which I work every day and many familiar campus landmarks and traditions. I’ve encouraged SGA members’ pilgrimages to the archives and had the pleasure of watching them discover a past they can embrace as their own. As the archives reveal, UMBC is not a collection of buildings but a confluence of stories, each finite but in their combination eternal.

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