New Web site taps Pitt's archives

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University of Pittsburgh
The first graduating class from the University of Pittsburgh School of Education was photographed in June 1911. This is among the images now available from the Pitt archives.

By Patricia Lowry, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

While college towns have their charms, some city universities have other advantages a parent might never consider.

University of Pittsburgh
"Dorm Life": A student at his desk in his room in Schenley Hall in 1962.
Click photo for larger image.

Take Princeton. Sure, Princeton has a great reputation, but 124 years ago, it lacked a certain something that set the Western University of Pennsylvania apart.

"Our college building fronts the Courthouse square," boasted the editors of the Pennsylvania Western student journal in 1882. "This must at once suggest to parents that when proper discipline demands that their sons, like some twenty Freshmen of Princeton, be conducted to the court house for trial, it can be accomplished with loss of much less time from their studies than if they were in a village which is ten miles distant from the county seat."

Parents, the editors advised, should consider the Western University of Pennsylvania "before sending their boys to colleges in far-away country villages."

Put that in your Meerschaums and smoke it, Ivy Leaguers.

Thanks to a new Web site, collegiate sarcasm and much more no longer are lost between the covers of obscure and antiquated publications. Last week, the University of Pittsburgh launched Documenting Pitt, a digital archive of more than 70,000 pages of text and images: course catalogs, chancellors' reports, yearbooks, commencement programs, fact books, football and basketball media guides and hundreds of photographs of students, staff and buildings. It's all searchable at

Large as it is, there would have been more still had it not been for two devastating, successive fires. Pitt began almost 220 years ago, but the earliest items in the collections date only to the 1860s.

The school was chartered by the state as the Pittsburgh Academy in 1787, after a tireless campaign by Pittsburgh lawyer, writer and activist Hugh Henry Brackenridge. Classes began two years later in what was likely a log building near the corner of Third Avenue and Smithfield Street.

The early, irreplaceable records of the Academy, which became the Western University of Pennsylvania in 1819, were lost in the city's fast-moving Great Fire of 1845, along with the school's stately, three-story Greek Revival building. After the fire, the university moved to a new building on a site later occupied by Horne's department store. When that building burned four years later, the school once again lost everything -- library, furniture, scientific equipment, records and building. Disheartened, it closed up shop "and waited for a new and brighter day," as Robert C. Alberts wrote in "Pitt," his 1986 history of the school, one of several books included on the Documenting Pitt Web site.

When the university was revived in 1855, it was in a new, three-story Italianate building at Ross and Diamond (now Forbes) streets, where the City-County Building is now. But in June 1882, just four months after the Pennsylvania Western touted the school's proximity to the Allegheny County Courthouse, the university sold its Downtown real estate to the county and moved across the river to Allegheny City, settling into rented quarters on North Avenue.

The Pennsylvania Western -- the awkward name was meant to "harmonize with" the name of the school -- was published from 1882 to 1887, corresponding with the university's time on North Avenue. A new student magazine, The Courant, replaced it in 1888, a year before the school moved into a new building on Observatory Hill, below the Allegheny Observatory.

Documenting Pitt covers The Courant from 1888 to 1910. For six months in 1905-06, Robert L. Vann was editor -- just four years before he took over as editor, publisher and legal counsel of the Pittsburgh Courier and began its rise to one of the most prominent and respected black newspapers in America.

The Owl yearbook first appeared in 1907, and the school moved to Oakland in 1908. In 1910, the yearbook carried the school's new name for the first time: University of Pittsburgh. Documenting Pitt's yearbooks span eight decades, ending in 1980 with the publication of the last Owl; the next year, it became Panthers Prints.

"We had to come up with a stopping point," said Ed Galloway, who heads the Digital Research Library at Pitt's Archives Service Center in Point Breeze. "We only had a certain amount of money," tapping special funds from the provost's office.

Yearbooks may prove to be the most visited pages -- they've long been the most requested items from university archivist Marianne Kasica -- but it's the course catalogs that show the school's scholarly evolution. Documenting Pitt has them for the years 1861-62 through 1926-27, save for one year.

But in the 1910s, an 1822 catalog was found in a time capsule under the cornerstone of the building at Ross and Diamond, and Pitt published an essay about it in 1919. Western University students spent six to eight years on a classical education in 1822, studying the languages, literature, art and cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.

Documenting Pitt has some overlap of texts with the university's popular Historic Pittsburgh Web site, and all of the new site's several hundred photographic images can be found on Historic Pittsburgh (

And as with Historic Pittsburgh, Documenting Pitt may continue to grow.

"Depending on the responses we get to the site, we're going to revisit this in a couple months and see if we can continue [adding to] this," Mr. Galloway said. "I'm pretty sure that we will."

Historic Pittsburgh's single-day peak of 10,000 "unique users" came on Dec. 21, 2004, the day a story about its image collections ran in the Post-Gazette. The site served 6,500 visitors last month.

Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590.


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