University’s first archivist set to retire


Roberto Hodge

Robert Hillman, reference librarian and the university archivist for the past 25 years, shows off some of the artifacts stored deep in the lower levels of Booth Library. Hillman retired Sunday. Hillman looks at a guitar once in possession of musician Burl Ives, who dropped out of Eastern in 1929.

Debby Hernandez, Administration Editor

At the south end of Booth Library is the small office of Eastern’s very first archivist who has helped preserve the history of the university and other items that make it interesting.

Robert Hillman, Eastern’s archivist and head of Special Collections at Booth Library, has retired as of Nov.30 after 25 years of service.

Prior to Eastern, he worked as an archivist for an engineering company in Utah for a couple of years.

Hillman also was in the Air Force for four years during the Vietnam War where he served in Thailand after obtaining his bachelor’s degree.

He was hired in 1989 as an archivist because the university was approaching its 100th anniversary.

With a celebration approaching, the university was in need of people to help organize the event.

“They had to engage a couple of historians around campus to write centennial history,” Hillman said. “(They) needed somebody to organize the archives; there has never really been an archivist, so it was a new position within the library.”

Eastern had its centennial celebration in 1995, which Hillman took part in.

Hillman also took part in Eastern’s time capsule ceremony in 1995, in which the original time capsule was removed from Old Main and replaced with a new one.

“It was a really hot day. I tried to get my white gloves on for handling stuff and my gloves got stuck and I couldn’t put them on very well. Former Gov. Edgar was sitting there on stage and I was down fumbling with my gloves,” Hillman laughed.

Hillman also worked up an exhibit for the 100th anniversary of Pemberton Hall in 2008, and took part in the 50th anniversary of the Martin Luther King Jr. University Union, where an exhibit and celebration took place for that as well.

“It was fun being the archivist (and) it’s been a privilege to work on some of the important events,” he said.

He is responsible for university records, which are considered permanently valuable, manuscript collections and documented history of the university, context from scholars, and collection of interesting things people donate to the university.

Some of the items that Hillman has been responsible for maintaining include Eastern’s very first yearbook, items from former Gov. Edgar such as a silver shovel,  a guitar and costume from Frosty the Snowman, items from Mary Booth, student research, old and new books, circuit court case files, records of university publications, and old film equipment.

Hillman said his job also consists of helping people, such as genealogists, with their research.

“I think archivists play an important role because they try to save things that have historical significance and will have in the future,” he said. “They serve as a resource for all kinds of historical projects.”

He said he enjoys helping people and being involved in someone’s personal quest.

“One time someone was trying to find her mother; she thought there was a connection with Eastern somehow, so I researched it,” he said.

Hillman also had other experiences, including two women who found out they were half-sisters and wanted to know more about their father, who happened to be a former Eastern student.

“I found out a bunch of things about their father; not only was this man involved in almost everything, he was also an editor of The Daily Eastern News,” he said. “When they came to visit, I was really happy to be able to give them a big stack of stuff about their father.”

Hillman’s most recent experience was with a couple from New Zealand who supplied the university with information about Mary Hawkins, the first supervisor of Pemberton Hall, while doing family research.

He said the archived collections are often used for university exhibits, but are still under-used.

“There could be more research projects undertaken using the archives,” Hillman said.

He said one of the challenges with being an archivist is keeping up with the changing interest in topics from people as the years go by.

“There was a time when people were interested in political or military history; then all of a sudden the trends changed, and people began to be interested in social history,” Hillman said. “The main purpose of any archives is to preserve the things that are considered permanently valuable, and if we try to second guess what the historians down the line are going to be interested in, (well), you can’t save everything.”

He said having access to archived things is now easier with computers, while before people had to go to the reference desk to get things.

He said many libraries used to have closed stacks, where access to them was limited.

“I was not here when they used to have closed stacks in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” he said. “Students during that time were not allowed into the stacks. They had to fill out slips and request books, and they were retrieved for them and taken to the circulation desk.”

Booth Library was renovated from 1999 to 2002, and when it was reopened, the two buildings were connected and the archival office space was installed at the end of the library.

“I will miss the daily contact with all the friends I have made,” he said. “I think people on campus appreciate the work I have done.”

Hillman said his retirement comes now for family reasons, since he would like to spend more time with his sister in North Carolina.

“I probably will try to finish up some research projects of my own,” he said. “I like any kind of historical research.”

Hillman said he hopes a fresh face will replace his work.

“It’s a change, and it’s time for me to move on.” he said.

Debby Hernandez can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]