It seemed too good to be true, but Anne Turkos was sure Charles Benedict Calvert had penned the letter before her, offering a rare look into the original vision for the Maryland Agricultural College.
There it was, a letter from the man considered the founding force of the university, stating exactly what he wanted students to study and how their days would be organized, said Turkos, a university archivist.
“It just lays it all out right there in the letter,” Turkos said, recalling how her hands shook when she first opened the package containing the document. “Because these documents are so rare, it was just amazing for me to see that.”
The feeling of holding history in her hands — whether it’s a rare letter or an old diploma — is “just incredible,” Turkos said.
One might think the university archivist was born and raised a Terrapin for life. After all, she wears turtle jewelry every day and has a collection of more than 600 turtles in her Hornbake Library office and at home, ranging from a Terp-shaped whiskey decanter to foam turtle helmets of varying sizes and weights.
But the University Archives are quite unlike the place where Turkos earned her master’s degrees in history and library science, Case Western Reserve University.
“The university archives where I got my graduate degree was very boring — it’s not like this,” said Turkos, who came to this university in January 1985. “It was far away from the center of campus, and it was very quiet.”
It’s an entirely different atmosphere in Hornbake, where she and fellow archivist Jason Speck like to try on the foam helmets and grill each other on sports history trivia in between answering research questions, giving tours of the archives and preserving new materials.
“We argue about whether or not we remember something right, various points in university history, about what something meant or didn’t mean,” Speck said.
“We could sit here and be bored and quiet and not have any fun, but what fun would that be?” Turkos added. “Who wants to come to work like that?”
Instead, Turkos calls the archives her second home, and her office — covered floor to ceiling with turtles from around the world — reflects her love for the university and its history.
She’ll sometimes find herself working from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., even coming in on weekends to get ahead on long-term projects.
“I’ll answer [research] questions, hang out with the ghost, chat with her and see what’s been going on during the week,” Turkos said with a laugh, referring to the legendary Hornbake ghost, whose high heels she’s heard clicking across the floor late at night.
Speck chides Turkos for talking about her long hours, joking it might intimidate some students interested in the field.
However, graduate assistants who work in the archives said they find this dedication inspiring.
“They have such a good work ethic,” said Rebecca Hopman, a library sciences graduate student. “They’ll do whatever they need to do the best job they can. They treat everyone so nicely and really make it a fun place to work.”
For Turkos, the job satisfaction comes from making the campus aware of its own history, telling people stories they haven’t heard before and connecting the past to the present.
Administrators announced last week the university will move to the Big Ten in 2014, for example, but athletic conference switch-ups are nothing new, said Turkos and Speck, who look for patterns in history. On the day when university officials announced they would exit the ACC, the archivists were looking at documents discussing athletics and finance from the 1950s. At that time, Turkos said, the university’s Middle States accreditation was in danger because the school was placing too much emphasis on athletics.
“There’s a lot of comments in the papers about how sports is all about money now — there’s too much emphasis on sports, too much emphasis on money,” Speck said. “In 1955, they had the same problem.”
Other research has led to reconnecting alumni with class rings, replacing yearbooks and tracking down relatives.
A few years ago, a woman contacted the archivists, looking for an image of her grandfather who died before she could meet him. Speck found records of a patent the man submitted for a particular method of making chocolate milk and was able to figure out from the records that he attended Penn State. Speck contacted the school’s archives and secured a photo of the woman’s grandfather.
It’s often an emotional experience, Turkos said, when they can reconnect people with their families or show footage of old football games to relatives of former Terps.
“It may not happen every day, but there are a lot of those ‘aha’ moments,” she said.
Rumors of retirement occasionally arise, but Turkos and the graduate students break into laughter at the idea of Turkos ever leaving her job.
“That’s hilarious,” Speck said. “Carried out in a pine box or forced out in a bloody coup, but not retiring.”
Instead, Turkos is going to continue cheering on the Terps at sporting events and attending various book talks and lectures, while encouraging students and alumni to think about the past, not just the future.
“That’s something Jason and I are trying really hard to change,” said Turkos, who will teach a history class about the university with Speck starting in spring 2014. “It is important to know where you came from, and it is interesting.”