I first got to know the magnetic William Hudnut, III not through that twinkle in the eye, the baritone voice, or the signature “Hudnut Hook.” Instead, I got to know this larger-than-life personality through historical documents preserved thanks to a visionary partnership between the University of Indianapolis and digital history pioneer HistoryIT .
The University of Indianapolis is the custodian of the mayoral papers of Hudnut, who held office from 1976 through 1991, Richard Lugar, Stephen Goldsmith, Bart Peterson, and Greg Ballard, as well as political guru L. Keith Bulen. We were doing our due diligence as stewards of these collections of documents, images, artifacts, and a/v materials, but prior to 2013 the information inside them was available only to a handful of researchers with time and training to pore through more than two million pages. We were the keepers of unique historical assets, but we were keeping them under lock and key. We were uncertain how to make these more accessible to the general public, and how we would help the public find meaning in these materials. Like many historical organizations or medium-sized institutions, we had some resources, but lacked the technical know-how and experience to solve these problems in-house.
I looked outward to see what others were doing. I saw a lot of existing models, and I saw a lot of problems: many digital archives contain only selected materials from the collections; most interfaces are clunky and difficult to navigate; the ways in which these collections can be searched is incredibly limited; and, in some cases, they take many years to create. As a professional historian, I saw a lot of digital materials that might be available, but hard to access, find, or interpret. There had to be, I believed, a better way. In HistoryIT, I found a company that also recognized the limitations to current practices in historical preservation. Working together, we were able to share many documents with Mayor Hudnut, his family and the general public during his lifetime.
We took a leap of faith. In retrospect, it was a bigger leap than I recognized. We contracted with HistoryIT to conduct a feasibility study and pilot project in order to determine what we were getting into and what the benefits would be. To support the study, they created a sample feature, digitizing a small fraction of the materials in our Mayoral Archive. HistoryIT set up shop in our library during the summer of 2013 with a small team. They worked with our archivist, Mark Vopelak, and met with faculty and administration to get a complete understanding of how a digital archive might benefit overall University initiatives. They mined archival box after archival box, creating a sample archive of approximately 600 digital materials from across the collection and designing our curated sample pilot: Bringing the Colts to Indianapolis. The story of luring the Colts to Indianapolis, of course, is one in which Mayor Hudnut plays the starring role.
Visionary leadership from two University presidents (Beverley Pitts and Robert Manuel), our Board of Trustees, and generous philanthropic support allowed the historic partnership between the University of Indianapolis and HistoryIT. They digitized ALL of the mayoral collection that we had available at the time, not just these selected gems. And they did so in less than one year! This record speed allowed Senator Lugar and Mayor Hudnut to see and reflect on the digital archive, a rare experience for political figures who donate to University repositories. Several larger universities have been developing their in-house capacity to process and digitize their collections and are generally making a strong commitment to digital collections. At the University of Indianapolis, a partnership with a mission-driven company allowed us to meet, and surpass, our own wishes for these materials. Perhaps more importantly, it was through this partnership that we extended the meaning of these materials beyond the walls of the University. Anyone with an internet connection can visit and see for themselves.
Bill Hudnut’s life ended this past week, but we will preserve his legacy for years to come. I am happy that my own children, who are under ten, won’t just have to hear stories about Bill Hudnut from their father, but that they and their classmates can explore the digital archives and see for themselves what a visionary leader, thoughtful individual, and caring soul he was. I hope that some of these artifacts and images bring back your own memories of the Hudnut years, and that you will be kind enough to share those with us, so that we can continue to pay tribute to Mayor Bill.