New environmental history collection comes to University Libraries
February 16, 2021
Millions of rare treasures lie behind the glass wall of Special Collections and University Archives at Newman Library. Tucked away in a secure location with environmental controls, you will find historic documents, photographs, maps, rare books, newspapers, and other items that are of special value and importance to history, literature, Virginia Tech, and beyond.
When a new collection is acquired, archivists like Bess Pittman of the University Libraries, delicately go through the old, fragile, irreplaceable items with great care to organize and preserve them and make them available to researchers around the world.
Currently, Pittman is processing the newly acquired and highly sought-after M. Rupert Cutler Papers with the help of a $74,538, one-year grant by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).
“I am passionate about the preservation of voices,” said Pittman. “Cutler’s voice has been loud in the defense of our natural resources for decades, and his work has had a substantial impact on the local area.”
A native of Detroit, Michigan, Cutler is an important regional figure and prominent environmentalist who since the 1990s has called Roanoke, Virginia, home. He has contributed substantially to the Southwest Virginia community through his impressive work and has dedicated much of his life to environmental issues.
Containing a total of 182 cubic feet of materials, the M. Rupert Cutler collection documents Cutler’s environmental, political, and business activities prior to and following his service in President Jimmy Carter’s administration as assistant secretary for natural resources and environment of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Also captured are Cutler’s personal experiences, service on the Roanoke City Council, insights into how major federal environmental legislation was passed and new policies adopted, and the establishment and early days of local Roanoke Valley environment-related initiatives, including the greenways program, Explore Park, Carvin’s Cove Natural Reserve for biking, and the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy.
Additionally, the collection contains contributions to environmental organizations nationally and in Virginia, where he served in leadership roles at the National Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Blue Ridge Land Conservancy, and Virginia Outdoors Foundation.
The collection dates from the late 1960s to the present, excluding some items from 1977 - 1981, which are housed in the President Jimmy Carter National Library archives in Atlanta, Georgia.
“I donated this collection to the University Libraries because I thought the documentary record of my role in the history of the American environmental movement was worthy of preservation for future students of that subject,” said Cutler. “The collection shows what one person, day by day, can contribute to the grand sweep of environmental protection initiatives in the United States, not necessarily as the point person in every instance, but by putting one’s shoulder to the wheel of progress. I am proud to be able to look back on my contributions to a variety of projects and campaigns that I led, with the help of many others, to their fruition.”
A more in-depth look at this collection reveals unique, personal correspondence like birthday cards and friend updates. The professional correspondence includes news clippings, published and unpublished writings on environmental and political issues, materials relating to his participation in several clubs and associations like an acapella group and Kiwanis, and records of his achievements in a variety of personal and professional areas.
“Cutler’s correspondence contains the voices of many other leading minds in local politics and the national and international environmental movement,” said Pittman. “Without the words and works of our past, we cannot hope to thrive or progress. Archives are a vital tool in saving the records of our human endeavors, and I’m proud to be a part of that.”
Pittman is responsible for processing the materials, writing the finding aid for the collection, creating a physical exhibit in the Special Collections and University Archives Reading Room, digitizing a selection of the most interesting 200 items, and creating an online digital exhibit of them. She is also planning at least two collection-related events, one of which will take place during Environmental History Week in mid-April 2021.
“As climate change becomes more pressing, the efforts of people like Cutler to preserve the natural world will become more vital than ever, and their history will be in the spotlight,” said Pittman.
“By reading the record of my work preserved in this collection, present and future environmental conservation professionals and volunteers can find encouragement that their day-by-day incremental steps, that at the time don’t seem very important, in sum, over time, eventually will help achieve important goals,” said Cutler.
Pittman said the biggest challenge of this project has been the in-person time restrictions of accessing the collection during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Cutler is a highly organized man, so his papers are very tidy and makes the processing fairly straightforward,” said Pittman. “There are always small surprises when processing personal papers, especially when the creator kept everything, as Cutler did. I’ve found bank statements, an empty coffee bag, and unexpected perspectives in this collection. Every collection has its own joys and frustrations.”
“Culter is an incredibly energetic figure and I find the sheer scope of his activities to be the most fascinating part of the collection,” said Pittman. “It’s one thing to be a prominent environmentalist in your prime and quite another to be an active advocate in your 70s and 80s and also be on the city council, run a park, sit on a half dozen boards, be a member of a handful of committees, do charity work, and still find time for family and fun."
“Modern archivists are not the miserly keepers of forbidden tomes of days past,” said Pittman. “We welcome anyone who wants to come look at our holdings and are trained to help researchers find exactly what they need, even if they’re not quite sure what that is. A person doesn’t need to be writing a book to find useful and fascinating items in an archive, and I’d like more people to feel comfortable spending time in our collections.”
Cutler said he is looking forward to seeing the project completed and future researchers putting it to good use. The collection is projected to be fully processed in early spring 2021. Pittman said they intend to bring in speakers to give talks about environmental milestones featured in the collection, environmental history in general, and about Cutler himself.
“This collection documents a lifetime of passionate engagement with local and worldwide communities that we can aspire to emulate,” said Pittman.
— Written by Elise Monsour Puckett