Tuesday, March 1, 2022

“History is defined by whatever records we have in hand,” said David McCartney, University of Iowa Archivist. “What to preserve is not a decision we take lightly because we can’t save everything.” Determining what will be relevant in the future is at the crux of the responsibility of an archivist because history is fluid. And David McCartney has been at the crossroads of UI history and archives since 2001.  

Roughly 3% of institutional records created can be saved meaning archivists must think carefully about what has enduring value and what can be discarded.  

Determining what will be relevant in the future is at the crux of the responsibility of an archivist because history is fluid. They are called to recognize what information is significant and can be captured in a contemporaneous fashion so researchers in the future can benefit. 

McCartney has been well known on campus and in the state of Iowa as a go-to source when it comes to UI history and historical records. Recent contributions include moderating a panel discussion called Uncovering Hawkeye History - Today, and developing exhibits, including the replication of a circa 1975 dorm room, for the University’s 175th anniversary. 

After 21 years, McCartney is stepping away from his position in the University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections and Archives effective March 1.   

In 1992, McCartney was curating records in his home town, Charles City, to help save the childhood home of Carrie Chapman Catt, a suffragist and peace activist who helped secure for American women the right to vote and founded the League of Women Voters.  

That’s when he found his muse – history. 

To that point, McCartney had worked in broadcast radio as a journalist, but he decided to change careers. At age 38, he returned to school, pursuing graduate degrees in library science and history at the University of Maryland under the mentorship of Frank Burke, the former acting Archivist of the United States. 

At UI since 2001, McCartney has lengthy list of accomplishments and research projects. He has documented compelling figures with ties to the University, such as digitizing records of famed boxer Muhammed Ali’s visit to the Iowa Memorial Union in the 1967, documenting the life of a student who became one of first in the nation to burn his draft card and suffered lifelong consequences, and created the Darwin Turner Collection to preserve the record of the man who created the nation’s first advanced degrees in African American Studies at UI.  

Behind the scenes work that often goes unnoticed has been just as valuable. This would include working in collaboration with units across campus, meta data cataloguing, digitizing Daily Iowan archives, developing collections, or securing papers of prospective donors. 

McCartney said he’s valued the relationships he’s developed over the years. As technology has changed, McCartney said he feels it is time to step aside and let new blood with new ideas step in.  

“The records researchers access represents so much more than information on a piece of paper,” McCartney said. “They represent human experience in all forms. Sometimes tragic. Sometimes experiences bring great joy. They elicit emotion in us that can’t be anticipated. An unexpected joy has come from working in this field.”