Who I’m Thankful For: Patricia J. Albright, Archives Librarian

I’ve wanted to be an architect since before I knew what architecture was. In elementary school, I created elaborate backstories for my Barbie dolls then designed houses out of shoeboxes, toilet paper tubes, those little square wallpaper and paint sample sheets from Home Depot, and anything else I could get my hands on. Then I went nuts for the “boy toy” Lego bricks. By the time I got to middle school we had electives, and the CAD (computer-aided design) classes crafting houses blew my mind. I continued on with the mechanical drafting all through high school. Right now, in my bedroom, is a laundry basket filled with drawings of mine as well as commercially available house plans, and pages and pages of interior design ideas ripped from magazines.

My move-in weekend at Tulane University in 2005 was when Hurricane Katrina hit. That fall, I came back home and took classes at Mount Holyoke College. I went back to New Orleans for the spring 2006 semester, but I got so sick from all the toxic mold in the air (the first weekend back I spent volunteering gutting houses in the 9th Ward…I got a sinus infection that never really left) that I had to drop out and come home again. For the 2006-07 school year I’d planned to go to my second choice, Roger Williams University, but a back injury (the same one that came back to kick my ass today) sidelined me and their inflexibility dealing with basic cripple accommodations ensured I never returned. Anyway! I ended up back at MHC, figuring I would take all my electives there before transferring back into a real architecture program (theirs wasn’t accredited at the time but now is as part of the Five College Consortium). That’s how I wound up what I like to call an “accidental” sociology major with an architectural studies minor. The latest back injury has me one semester out from graduating from MHC, in case you were wondering.

All the architecture studio courses I’d taken at MHC were hard on my body, but the latest round in winter of 2009 was so rough — sleeping 4 hours max per night from the intense workload, the creative buzz making me so high/manic that when I had time to sleep I couldn’t, working in a studio that didn’t have working heating, carrying heavy things dorm to studio regularly because we lacked storage space, etc. (all things totally TYPICAL of the archie lifestyle I knew and loved at Tulane) — that my primary care doctor begged me to consider working in another field, instead of pursuing this for 3 years to get my Master’s degree. FYI: You need a M.Arch to practice regardless, so I was just adding an extra year to my grad studies by taking the long way ’round. But I knew in my heart that I had to give up the dream, for the sake of my ridiculously fragile health. It totally sucks.

And it would have been unbearable if I wasn’t so in love with my job as an archives librarian. Student assistant, actually. I want to be my boss when I grow up. If I grow up. Patty Albright a genius and I’m pretty sure that she has an encyclopedic photographic memory. She’s like the Wizard behind the curtain guiding all of Oz. But in a less crazy, more awesome way. She’s a fantastic boss because she gives clear and concise directions, teaches me something new with each task, never gets impatient when I’m learning, always encourages my questions without making me feel stupid, makes the everyday archives systems easy and logical, lets me run free with tasks when I know what I’m doing (over-teaching and over-supervising gets really annoying to me…but maybe that’s just me), and has a lovely dry wit. Oh, and she has cats! I’m a sucker for the animals, I admit it. I loved coming to work everyday, and I have to say that easily 90% of the reason for that was Patty. I still miss work. I miss working with her.

Her pressure to get me to go for my Master’s degree in library science pretty much changed my life. It’s what I want to do, should I recover enough from my back injury to make it possible. Patty does all the work that she does while suffering from fibromyalgia. She’s my cripply inspiration, if you will. My great hope that I can one day do something useful and meaningful in the world…without wreaking havoc on my health. I love her. I’d shout it from rooftops if I could!

I’ve been toying around with this thing I’ll call the Gratitude Project since high school. Basically the idea is to tell the people you love that you love them and you’re thankful to have them in your life. I probably have 4 or 5 pages written for all of my “The Possé” buddies, none of which I’ve finished. But working in the archives with Patty made me realize how important it is to write these things down. To have a record. To make it known. I deeply regret never writing down all of my Grandfather’s family stories while he was alive; Try as I might, I never can tell them just right. Part of the reason I’m telling you this, dear reader, is to peer pressure myself into finishing some of them. Maybe for Christmas…? I’ve been horribly depressed and unbalanced lately, so that might not be the best idea. But still. They need to be finished.

I’m not sure that I’ll ever get far enough in the Gratitude Project to write Patty a letter, so for now maybe this blog post will have to do.

What prompted this particular musing about her awesomeness? On Thanksgiving Day proper (Thursday November 25th, 2010), my local paper, The Springfield Republican, ran the following piece featuring Patty…

‘At Mount Holyoke, Students Cooked’


SOUTH HADLEY, MA – Deep in the archives of Mount Holyoke College, Thanksgiving in the 1800s comes to life in the letters and diaries of young women who were students at the college some 160 years ago.

Thanksgiving back then was an even bigger celebration than Christmas, says Patricia J. Albright, archives librarian Mount Holyoke.

And, the accounts of the holiday as once observed in this college town are as fresh and lively as if they had been written yesterday.

Albright studied them as part of her research for “Table for 10: The Art, History and Science of Food,” a series of exhibits and programs currently in museums and colleges across the Pioneer Valley.

The food and decorations for Thanksgiving in the mid-1800s may sound familiar, but imagine them multiplied to the nth degree – in an age with no electricity, no refrigeration and no central heating.

And, in the 1800s, Mount Holyoke College invited all of South Hadley to its Thanksgiving celebrations.

“The amount of labor involved was immense,” said Albright, “and the preparations started the week before.”

A student named Lucy Fletcher described in her journal how girls were “stoning raisins,” making cranberry sauce, beating eggs for cakes, and making pies and puddings for Thanksgiving.

In those days, Albright explained, the cooking and other domestic tasks were done by the students themselves. Founder Mary Lyon, whose mission was to make higher education accessible to middle-class girls, found that such a system kept the tuition affordable.

Fletcher’s 1843 account also includes a charming description of how the formidable Lyon threw herself into “superintending” the Thanksgiving effort, “hurrying, running, hastening, and flying about, seeming hardly to know what she was about.”

So this Thanksgiving, I just wanted to say how very thankful I am for Patricia J. Albright, archives librarian at Mount Holyoke College. She changed my life for the better. And for that, I will forever be thankful.

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