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EXCHANGE: Illinois State collection personalizes World War 1

November 15, 2018

NORMAL, Ill. (AP) — This year, Veterans Day was not only a time to salute those who have served our country in the military, it’s also the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

The last surviving U.S. veteran of that “war to end all wars” died in 2011 at the age of 110. But the stories of many of those veterans with ties to Illinois State University, as well as civilians who served in various capacities, are carefully preserved in the University Archives along with posters and other artifacts.

You can get a feeling about what life was like back then by looking through the collection.

Posters more than a century old call on people to “Fight or Buy Bonds,” share books with soldiers because “Knowledge Wins” and bake “victory bread.”

“Posters were the social media of the day,” said Angela Bonnell, head of government documents at ISU’s Milner Library.

And, in an era long before email and social media, people wrote letters in remarkable penmanship.

Many of those letters also are preserved in the University Archives.

They include a letter from Ellen Babbitt, a former Illinois State Normal University student with the American Red Cross, who wrote about watching what she hoped was the end of the war outside her window in France where she was helping people from war-ravaged areas learn how to take care of their families.

Then there was another former ISNU student, 2nd Lt. John Feek, who wrote, “I really believe the one single thing that prompted me to be active enlisting was the publication in the Pantagraph of the Roll of Honor of ISNU.”

The posters, letters and other extensive details about ISNU’s contribution to the war effort may have been lost — or never even existed — if not for the university’s librarian at the time, Ange Milner.

She was part of the War Service Committee created at the start of the war by then ISNU President David Felmley.

Milner corresponded with people involved in the war who had connections to ISNU. She sent them copies of the campus newspaper, The Vidette, as well as The Pantagraph.

She also sent surveys asking such details as what they did during the war, what battles they fought in, what medals they received, where did they disembark and return and on what ship.

In doing so, she created more than 800 individual folders about people, of which more than 600 remain in the University Archives Collection.

“It’s one of the rare collections where you don’t just know a name, you get to know them as a person. You get to know what they did,” said University Archivist April Anderson-Zorn.

Both Bonnell and Anderson-Zorn said Milner was ahead of her time in recognizing the value of preserving such artifacts and information.

“She was smart enough to save these posters,” said Bonnell. “They were meant to be ephemeral” and tossed away.

Now, they give a glimpse into history, serving as a resource for students in classes ranging from history and communications to art and graphic design.

Likewise, the files she kept on the those who served provide important information.

“She wanted to make sure the service and sacrifice by ISNU affiliates . wasn’t lost after the fact,” said Bonnell.

Although World War I was long ago, its impact is still being felt, said Ross Kennedy, professor and chair of history at ISU.

“Most historians consider World War I to be the most consequential event of the 20th century,” said Kennedy. “Without World War I, it makes it pretty hard to imagine World War II or the Cold War.”

World War I brought the United States to prominence on the world stage; it led to creation of the Soviet Union and sowed the seeds of continuing disputes in the Middle East with the way borders were redrawn, he said.

An archivist isn’t supposed to have favorites, just like a parent isn’t supposed to have a favorite child, said Anderson-Zorn.

But, she admitted, when it comes to ISU’s World War I collection, “This might be one of my favorite collections. There’s so much great stuff. You’re getting to meet that person.”

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Source: The (Bloomington) Pantagraph, https://bit.ly/2PNneLR

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Information from: The Pantagraph, http://www.pantagraph.com

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