UIHistories Project: A History of the University of Illinois by Kalev Leetaru
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About The UIHistories Project

The images and text that grace the pages of this site are the work of Kalev Leetaru, part of his senior thesis as an undergraduate computer science major at the University of Illinois. He is now a doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science and can be reached at leetaru@illinois.edu. Please send any comments/suggestions/corrections regarding this site to him.

The Campus History Project traces its genesis to the early months of 2003, when I upgraded my cell phone to one of those "picture phones" with a 640x480 VGA resolution. I immediately began snapping photos of everything in sight and at once I was taken with the photography bug. Several months later I decided it was finally time to get a full-fledged camera to enable me to take high-quality photos. So, I purchased an HP945, and on November 19, 2003 it arrived and I took my first 100 photos that day. Among my first photographs were my family and a tree in our front yard backlit against the setting sun. I was enchanted by this new toy and that evening took photos of Beckman and the Advanced Computation Building on campus. Over the coming months I was always running around campus taking photos of various sights on campus.

After several months of taking photos on the UIUC campus, I realized that I had a fairly comprehensive collection of imagery of central campus, stretching along the routes that I took to class and the major public areas of campus. Thinking that this could be a very useful resource to someone needing photographs of campus, I went online to see what other offerings of campus imagery existed. I was shocked to discover that there were only two major collections, one of which charged for its images, and the other that provided only a small handful of imagery on selected campus buildings. Both collections were very underdeveloped both in the period of time they represented and the areas of campus they covered. It was then that I decided to do what no-one else had: to systematically photograph the entire UIUC campus and capture its existence over a set of months, creating a "photographic time capsule" of campus.

As I began focusing more intently on the subjects of my photographs, I began noticing little details of campus buildings that I had never seen in my previous years at the University. I started becoming very interested in the history of campus and how it had come to be. At the same time I became acutely aware of the almost daily destruction wrought upon our campus landmarks, from water damage at Kenny Gym, to the continued deterioration of the century-old hand-painted murals in Altgeld. I realized that not only was I capturing campus for the enjoyment of people today, but I was establishing the foundations of a historical record that would illustrate in exquisite detail the state of campus in 2003-2004 and preserve for all eternity the past that was being so rapidly lost.

Thus was born the Campus Photographic Preservation Project in June 2004. The focus of my project had shifted from merely capturing campus buildings, to attempting to create a historical record of them as well. Thus, rather than simply taking a few beautiful photos of each building from its main entrance, I would go beyond those selected "public relations photos" to document the entire building, photographing it from every angle and even walking its entire interior, looking for any interesting angle that I should capture for this historical record. On May 21, 2004 I presented an independent study proposal to Professor Vernon Burton of the History Department to continue the project under his guidance. By working with a history professor, I hoped to learn more about what historians look for when they research the past, with the idea of tailoring my preservation-minded photographs to the specific needs of historians, giving future researchers the exact images that they need.

In late May 2004 I had finally come to the conclusion that my HP945 camera was not powerful enough for the demands I was placing on it, and so in early June 2004, a new Nikon D70 DSLR arrived in my mailbox. It arrived just in time to travel with me to Australia, where I took more than 5,700 photographs of Sydney and Melbourne.

By early July I had seen a number of fascinating glimpses into the campus of past and I was extraordinarily curious what those furtive glimpses meant and how campus had come to be the way it is today. On July 14, 2004, I visited the University of Illinois Archives for the first time, meeting with Bill Maher, the head archivist. We looked through the Archive's historical collection of photos and their collection of building dedication proceedings and other resources on campus history. Within a few days I had decided that I would expand my independent study project with Professor Burton to write a concise history of the early days of campus as my senior thesis.

On July 18, 2004 I spent nearly eight hours sweeping through the western border of campus, capturing everything in sight. After another thirty minutes spent hurriedly photographing the last few scattered buildings on campus that I had not yet finished, I was done. As of 6:30PM that evening, I had photographed every single building on the UIUC campus.

After I had finished photographing the entire campus, my work was far from done. I now needed to categorize and label all of my photos. Nearly nine months of photographing campus had left me with more than 25,000 photographs filed only by date. Over a period of about two weeks I would spent an hour or two a day pouring over the images and categorizing them, tagging them by building, time of day, whether they had people or snow, and several other attributes. This was performed using a new software tool named Phantasm that Alan Craig and I had developed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

For the next two months I focused my free time on building the collection further and researching the history of campus. As I delved deeper and deeper into the past of this campus, I realized that there was an epic tale, spanning nearly 150 years, on the pages I was reading. I realized this tale needed to be told, to rekindle an interest in our campus past, before it was too late and the last bastions of the old had been destroyed. What had begun as a small paper on the early days of campus had become an all-encompassing history of the entire campus. Many people have written political histories of this campus, and a few have researched one or two buildings in-depth, but to the knowledge of the University Archives, no-one had ever conducted a comprehensive historical survey of the entire campus from the standpoint of its buildings, monuments, gifts, and collections. And thus, Voices from the Grave was born, the paper from which this Web site is derived.

By September 2004 enough people were asking to see the photographic collection that it had become apparent that I needed to make the images available on a Web site. At 6:45PM on September 19, 2004, the UIPhotos site made its debut to a selected audience, with more than 30,000 photographs.

Finally, on October 24, 2004, the first draft of Voices from the Grave, my historical survey of campus, was completed. On its pages, which are reproduced on this Web site (which made its first appearance on November 13, 2004), I tell the story of an epic struggle, of a group of men deposited in the middle of nowhere, with nothing more than a building, an allotment of land, and a charter to raise a magnificent University from the "treeless prairie". The seeds they sowed all those years ago led to the three-campus internationally-recognized University that we cherish today. One could even argue that those men are responsible for setting the stage for our entire modern society, as just over a century later, the partnership of UIUC and NCSA led to the first graphical Web browser and the dawn of the commodity Internet, which has pervaded every aspect of our lives and revolutionized society itself.


I would like to acknowledge the support and advice of the following people:

- My advisor, Vernon Burton

- Alan Craig for his constant support and advice

- William Maher, Christopher Prom, and Debora Pfeiffer, of the University of Illinois Archives, for assisting me with learning how to use the vast holdings of the Archives and their tireless help in locating and understanding its resources

- Winton Solberg for helping point me in the right direction on some of the more nuanced areas of campus history

- Muriel Scheinman for her help in setting me in the right direction on the Gregory Collection

I would also like to acknowledge the support of the University Archives, without which this project would never have been possible and my interest in the history of campus would never have been fanned to the flame that burns so brightly today.

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