Photo Illustration of Archived UNL Yearbooks

As a part of our initiative Curious Cornhuskers, an anonymous reader asked The Daily Nebraskan, “Does UNL publish a yearbook or annual with photos of students, clubs, etc.?”

Whether or not students realize — while they traipse across campus to their Early America and Premodern Europe classes, pour into textbooks and study about ancient civilizations — they are historical instigators: living, breathing champions of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s ever-unraveling story.

And, if students themselves are the living history of UNL campus, head university archivist Mary Ellen Ducey said she thinks it’s only fitting for each student to have their existence memorialized and recorded. Ducey’s department of the UNL library, Archives and Special Collections, houses dozens of books of various sizes, colors and styles, each of which contains important information about what university life was like decades ago. These historical glimpses into yesteryear, once bundled up in book bags while anticipating the next drop of ink from the signature of a campus crush, were far from the artifacts they are considered today. Then, they were just yearbooks — nothing more.

As important as they once were, UNL yearbooks have not been published since 2004.

Though the yearbooks are no longer in circulation, Ducey said she’s glad scholars once doled out these volumes filled with student activity, campus clubs and sports teams. She knows the importance the yearbooks carry as teachers of the past. Ducey said she thinks one should browse the yearbooks if he or she is curious about the atmosphere on campus while major historical events were unfolding.

“Speaking as an archivist, I can’t imagine learning about university history and alumni without [yearbooks],” she said. “Looking at the yearbooks allows us to see how society in general is reflected on campus.”

The earliest yearbook archived by the university was released in 1884 and gives credit to six student editors who published the book. Their class lists pale in comparison to today’s roster when measuring factors such as diversity and numbers. Its yellowed pages are littered with illustrations from a time when photos were far too rare and costly to find their way into a student-made journal. Filled to the brim with sarcasm, the 1884 yearbook staff jokse about each of the university's institutions and even jests about a group of men who started a team for a new sport so simple “any fool can play it” — football.

“Nothing can be more invirograting than a kick at a ball and strike vacancy, unless it be getting piled up in a heap of ambitious students, who are as anxious as you are to kick something, even if they have to kick against the law of the faculty,” the page reads. “Then, again, it is good for the dude student. It is apt to rupture his pants in some place, so that he will have to have a new pair, which is a great thing for students.”

The archives, which can be accessed online, feature yearbooks published by students who survived the Great Depression, saw the beginning and end of both world wars, protested during the civil rights movement and cheered in front of a television screen as Neil Armstrong took his famous leap into unmarked lunar territory.

Between the leather covers of the 1937 yearbook and amidst records of howling winds that carried heaps of dry soil and a deep depression across the Great Plains, former dean of arts and sciences C. H. Oldfather penned a message to instill hope in his downtrodden students.

“What have we done over the past year? Well, after twelve months we turn up smiling,” Oldfather wrote. “Dust storms and droughts have not sapped our faith in the future of the state, in the future of the university, or in your future, dear graduates, for whom the faculty of the Arts College wish the very best that life can give.”

 Ducey said the last consecutive yearbook was published in 1972. As the university’s student population grew, the books were released inconsistently until 2004 when the university published its final edition.

Assistant university archivist Pete Brink said as yearbook prices increased, students’ interest dropped and book sales reached an all-time low, UNL yearbooks were discontinued. Students were no longer willing to purchase the costly books, which often excluded many campus organizations and clubs as the university’s population grew.

Brink said he thinks preserving yearbooks from the past is valuable for recording campus history, and he’s thankful for the hardcover copies remaining in university archives. He is still fascinated with what they tell about the past.

“Yearbooks give you a glimpse of what the university was like at a given time. You get to see what campus looked like, what people wore, what kind of activities they participated in,” he said. “I think it gives a good snapshot of university life. It’s a nice historical document.”

 Even if the university has printed its last yearbook, Ducey said she continues to adore the antique and intricate gold details and colorful portraits inside 1920s yearbooks, as well as the geometric designs and grainy photographs within the pages of a yearbook from the 1960s. She said she encourages students to peruse the online volumes if they wish to gain an accurate historical perspective about UNL’s student life during major cultural shifts in the U.S. 

Ducey said flipping through the archives can allow readers to hear from certain student voices and opinions during specific events in history and notice the silence of others, whose perspectives were especially pertinent.

“There may be commentary or stories on women’s suffrage in 1919, on U.S. participation in World War I and II and on how students in the 1960s sought change,” she said. “We must also recognize there are missing stories and voices that would help us to see how we need to look differently at university history to capture a more complete and diverse story.”