College archivist reflects on historical careerBy Dick Harms | Jun. 05, 2017
The great thing about being a historian, according to Calvin archivist Dick Harms ’73, is that there is no limit to the number of questions you can ask.
“Whatever you’re curious about, you can explore,” he said. “Whatever question comes to you, you can research; not every one is answerable, but many are.”
Harms has pursued many of those questions throughout his career, first serving as the assistant historian for the city of Grand Rapids and for the past 19 years as Calvin’s archivist. Some questions Harms has raised himself—in research he went on to pursue—but most have been asked by patrons.
“We get questions about baptismal records, ancestries or details about how a particular program at Calvin was set up,” he said. “Recently we were asked to find the original course description for a course here, and someone from Africa needed the deed to a property that a mission owned there.”
The answers to these and many, many more are available through Heritage Hall in Calvin’s Hekman Library, which houses four collections: the Calvin College archives, the Calvin Theological Seminary archives, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) archives, and manuscripts of the Dutch in North America since 1840.
Under Harms’ purview over the last two decades, the holdings of college and denominational records have grown exponentially. Numerous collections, such as the papers of Paul Henry and Vern Ehlers, have also been added to the holdings.
He has also been diligent in keeping the database of CRC ministers up to date. “That’s going to be hard to cut loose,” said Harms. “I’ve worked very hard to keep that accurate, keeping track of 3,800 ministers.”
Harms, though, will be passing oversight of that database and all of the records on, as he recently retired from Calvin.
“An archive is an institution’s repository of records of enduring value. It is the ‘go-to’ resource for an institution’s history,” said David Malone, dean of the college and seminary library. “As curator of archives, Dick Harms mimics that enduring value, that ‘go-to-edness.’ An archivist of his pedigree and length of service is irreplaceable. We can reacquire some of his skills, but not in the same combination. His retirement is a milestone and his departure a loss.”
Prior to his departure from the college, though, we asked him to draw on his depth of knowledge about this place and pull together little-known facts about Calvin, resulting in the following list of 10 Truths about Calvin.