Special Collections & University Archives (SC&UA) is home to a wide variety of collections. Included among these are numerous faculty and staff papers, dating back to the 1870s. These collections are snapshots of a faculty or staff member’s professional (and sometimes personal) life, both while at UNI and in some cases, before. From UNI presidential papers to facilities planning staff and more, SC&UA’s faculty & staff papers offer information about various aspects of the university and those who have worked here. The Erma Plaehn Papers is one of my favorite collections that we have in SC&UA.
Erma Plaehn (1906-1974) was a professor at the Iowa State Teachers College (now UNI) for nearly 40 years. She started as a Laboratory School instructor before becoming a professor in the Department of Social Science. Plaehn spearheaded the successful effort to create a separate Department of Political Science, becoming its first department head in 1969. Over the course of her career, she was involved in a variety of associations and organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women. Plaehn also co-authored, with Professor Henry Nelson, a series of film strips about Iowa history and geography.
Plaehn’s collection is one of my favorites not only because I think she was a highly accomplished individual, but also because her papers are an excellent example of the wealth of information faculty & staff papers can provide. They vary widely in topics and types of materials and Dr. Plaehn’s collection is no exception. It includes correspondence related to her teaching and speaking engagement but also contains an array of unique items.
For example, it contains Plaehn's perfect attendance card from when she was nine years old and is just one of a handful of materials from her personal life. The collection also includes a few different scrapbooks, one of which focuses on her trip with the American Political Science Association for its 1963 World Tour Seminar, as seen in this image. The scrapbook is full of different items, such as airline tickets, maps, photos, and travel itineraries. Scrapbooks are great primary sources for this reason - they often include content that held significance to that person, providing insight into the person’s life.
Many items in the collection focus on politics. There are a few different letters from Iowa Congressman Fred Schwengel to Plaehn, such as the one included here. Her collection also includes a U.S. House of Representatives restaurant menu, signed by nine House members and a handful of tickets for the 1948 Democratic National Convention. One item of particular note is a 1939 invitation from the office of former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt inviting Plaehn to the White House in conjunction with the American Political Science Association.
I’d encourage everyone to take a peek at our faculty & staff papers. They truly are treasure troves full of different perspectives, insight into a person’s work, and more. To access these collections, visit the University Archives Classification Schedule.
Contributed by Archival Processor & Reference Associate Tessa Wakefield, April 2020.