By Jack Sorensen
Pacific Lutheran’s history is stashed in boxes of index cards and call numbers, crammed among centuries-old books, overflowing from the shelves. Names, photographs, books and articles tell the stories of PLU’s over 120-year-old life, all weaving to form a narrative of an institution and image. Every story begins in the archives office on the third floor of the library.
Working away between the shelves of PLU’s vast collection is university archivist Kerstin Ringdahl, as much a part of PLU’s history as any aspect of the archives. She has been piecing history together for almost 46 years.
Ringdahl, 76, is the behind-the-scenes storyteller for the university—the keeper of the past and the collector of the present. Since she began working at PLU in 1965, she has devoted immeasurable hours to chronicling the university’s history.
Ringdahl’s story is as relevant to the personality of PLU as any story in her archives. A Swedish immigrant, she came to the United States in 1963 with her husband, an U.S. soldier returning from service in Germany. Her husband began taking classes at PLU and Ringdahl worked in a book mobile, traveling throughout Pierce County, checking out books. After a year, PLU’s then-librarian published an advertisement seeking a new library assistant who could “project the Scandinavian image of the university in the new library,” Ringdahl said.
“So I thought, I can do that.”
She applied for the job and soon began working in the old library, now Xavier.
“I was here when we moved into this building,” Ringdahl said of the Mortvedt library.
She described her first job in the library as “a little bit of everything.” Ringdahl sat at the front desk, fielding questions about the library, helping students and faculty find what they were looking for. Soon she was moved to the circulation desk, where she would work from 3:30 p.m. to midnight for over three years. When she wasn’t working, Ringdahl was pursuing a PLU degree in Scandinavian studies.
After completing his undergraduate education, Ringdahl’s husband left Parkland to pursue a master’s degree. The couple separated, as Ringdahl had become attached to the university.
“I actually realized I liked my job better than my husband,” she said with a warm smile. “I stayed here and he left.”
Ringdahl’s commitment to her work did not go unnoticed—after three years at the circulation desk, Ringdahl’s boss retired and the library placed her “in charge” of circulation. It was during this time she began to collect Scandinavian literature for the university.
Eventually the university expanded the library to a new third floor, where archives and collections were to be housed. Ringdahl said she remarked to her boss in passing that she would likely “spend more time up here” than sitting at circulation. Her quip was obviously taken seriously, and she was soon offered the job of PLU’s archivist. She was appointed and sent to the University of Washington for a degree in archives and management. She graduated from UW in 1987.
She’s been in the archives since.
Ringdahl is living history. Since Pacific Lutheran College became PLU in 1960, she has seen all but five years of the university’s history. She was here for the latter half of the 20th century, and has watched the university change from 1965-2011. Needless to say, Ringdahl said she believes her first-hand experiences at PLU have made her a “pretty good resource” to the community.
“I can look at photographs, for instance, and I know who a person is and what the occasions were,” she said. Ringdahl has been an eyewitness to many events and turning points. President Loren Anderson’s replacement will be the sixth president Ringdahl has worked with, she said.
“I probably should have retired a long time ago, but I really enjoy what I’m doing.”
Her current archives project is a little more personal. Ringdahl explained that the university recently asked her to participate in a National Public Radio-supported program titled “StoryCorps.” StoryCorps travels the country in an old Airstream trailer, collecting, archiving and presenting American stories in local communities. As detailed on the StoryCorps website, the non-profit teamed up with Northwest Public Radio to bring the project to Tacoma in early September. The trailer will be housed at the Tacoma Museum of Glass until this Friday. Among many other jobs and projects, Ringdahl was in the process of compiling her story for NPR.
Over the course of her career, Ringdahl’s job has changed in scope and practice, most notably with the digitalization of the archives. Still, PLU Archives keeps hard copies of everything, even minutes reports for departmental meetings. The collection easily fills the two large rooms attached to the archives office, with boxes of history stacked taller than Ringdahl.
The oldest book in the collection is a German book printed in 1524. Other prizes of the collection include a 300-year-old Moroccan Torah.
Ringdahl appeared particularly proud of the archives’ extensive collection of Scandinavian literature, which she has worked so long to collect.
“I sort of feel like they’re mine,” she joked about the archives. “Whatever is here is pretty much what I have done, what I have collected and put in order.”
Like any expert collector, Ringdahl said she wants more space. In her office she had university copies of concept art for the redesign of the archives, which the university intends to remodel as soon as adequate funds are available.
A room labeled “Kerstin’s Office” was including in the layout. She said there were no plans for a retirement date in the future.
“I’m just playing it by ear,” she said. While the archives and collections offices await expansion, PLU’s history is expanding off the shelves. Though somehow, Ringdahl manages to keep up with every detail.
“This was a political science professor,” she remarks in passing, indicating a black and white photo taped to a shelf as she walks among the archives.
“He had so much stuff, we went through boxes and boxes and boxes. He was sort of a packrat. The story is that he couldn’t get into his own office because it was filled with stuff. He had to meet with students outside of his office,” she recalled from her collection of memories.