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People on Campus: archivist Meredith Eliassen

February 24, 2006

Photo of Meredith EliassenOf all the greenery at SFSU, Meredith Eliassen prefers the maritime plants in the campus greenhouse; they remind her of the students at SFSU. Just as the plants' seeds are carried from seashores to fertile ground, "students who wind up here, grow and flourish," she said.

A library assistant in Special Collections and Archives, Eliassen works closely with the students who breeze into her office on the sixth floor of the J. Paul Leonard Library. The reward of helping them locate reference materials, she said, "is seeing students really turn on to something. They start off doing research for a class assignment and wind up getting hooked."

Before Eliassen earned a master's degree in library and information science from Simmons College, she got hooked on research as an undergrad. While pursuing a degree in radio and television, she enjoyed working on the Emmy Collection, a directory of Emmy Award-winning television programs for Northern California.

After graduating in 1989, Eliassen began working in the Library -- three months before the Loma Prieta earthquake. She helped in the near-yearlong recovery effort and wound up as curator of the Marguerite Archer Collection of Historic Children's Materials after it was moved to her area.

Eliassen said she remembers Archer, who died in July, as a warm and friendly "grandmother type" who arrived at SFSU with frequent care packages of books and manuscripts, and ignited Eliassen's interest in American children's literature. On March 11 Eliassen will be giving a talk, "A is for Archer: Two Centuries of American Literacy Education -- A Tribute to Marguerite Archer," at a conference celebrating multicultural children's literature, at University of San Francisco.

Born in Berkeley, Eliassen traces her passions for history and storytelling to her parents, who put on living history presentations at the old adobes in Petaluma. A visit to Eliassen's Web site reveals some of the many research topics that have piqued her interest over the years, from palmists who appeared in San Francisco newspapers in 1900 to the part dolls have played in educating young women on gender roles in Victorian times.

Eliassen's latest project: compiling a history of SFSU's campus gardens. In the fall she treated a group of resident advisers to her first tour of campus garden sites, past and present. The students were surprised to learn of Eliassen's favorite garden: the AIDS Memorial Grove, a quiet spot nestled behind a group of trees in front of the Gymnasium. "Many had walked by and had no idea it was there," Eliassen said. They also enjoyed learning of the once flourishing dahlia garden removed in the 1960s to make way for an addition to the old Humanities building. Eliassen said "Dahlia hustlers" often made off with the valuable flowers.

"The landscape was very much shaped by students," Eliassen said, pointing out that in 1939, then-student body President Clifford Worth negotiated the purchase of 57 acres of land from the city of San Francisco to launch the Lake Merced campus. The following year students working for 25 cents an hour as part of a junior WPA program chopped down trees to make room for buildings. Later, in 1943, the campus community supported the war effort by planting Victory Gardens where the Fine Arts and Creative Arts buildings are located today.

A relentless history detective, Eliassen said, "I'm kind of a stalker. Once I get on the scent of something, I don't stop." For example, she is not giving up on her search for the gentleman who did the original landscaping at the entry way to campus. She thought she found him in Australia but it turns out he was a different landscaper. (David Mayes, if you're out there, please contact Eliassen).

A historian, curator and fabulist, Eliassen recently wrote a Miwok version of "Beauty and the Beast" that draws from the tribe's mythology. Also a skilled artist, she illustrated her compendium of campus garden history with pencil sketches of flowers. In addition to watching over SFSU's special collections, Eliassen watches over some treasures of her own. She collects Zuni fetishes made by master carvers. The animals, designed to invoke wisdom for hunters, may provide a bit of luck for her own pursuits into the annals of history.

-- Adrianne Bee


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Last modified February 24, 2006 by University Communications