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NEH Grant Awarded to UC Merced for Sierra Nevada-Central Valley Archive in Library

May 3, 2022
Archives are seen stored at the UC Merced Library.
The expanded space will enable the library to preserve and provide access to special research collections. Photo by Rebecca Gourevitch.

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has awarded a $750,000 grant to the UC Merced Library in partnership with the Center for the Humanities to establish a research archive documenting the Sierra Nevada and Central Valley. With an additional $750,000 from the $20 million gift provided by philanthropist and author MacKenzie Scott and her husband, Dan Jewett, to the university last year, the $1.5 million combined will fund a capital project to renovate space in the library to store and showcase a variety of special collections.

"The Sierra Nevada-Central Valley Research Archive will be a one-of-a-kind facility for learning about a region whose scientific, cultural and economic value to the nation and the world is often overlooked," UC Merced Chancellor Juan Sánchez Muñoz said. "The archives will allow our students to engage in deep learning and hands-on research related to their state and the local region while also providing educational programming for the benefit of surrounding communities, many of which have had little to no opportunity to learn about the history of the area they call home."

The project will be focused on primary sources that document the complex and systemic problems faced by the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada. Human activities in the modern era have transformed these two landscapes, prompting the need for comprehension of these changes.

"We have already identified collections of papers, photographs, and other material objects of incalculable historical and cultural value that are at risk of being lost, either because they are in locations that cannot properly store them or are in facilities that are in the paths of wildfires. This project allows us to create a haven for these resources, and while we preserve them, we will also make them accessible," Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Gregg Camfield said. "The support from the NEH and work by the UC Merced Library and the Center for the Humanities will combine to create an engine for remarkable and long-overdue research on a largely overlooked region."

"Once the facility is ready, we will have world-class collections that support teaching, learning, research and service to the community," University Librarian Haipeng Li said. "There will be no other one like it in the world."

Library staff members have been acquiring and digitizing significant sources that document the region's cultural, social and environmental histories. Among them are the papers of the "Okie Folk poet" Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel; Ernest Lowe's photographs documenting farmworker communities and labor activism; UC Cooperative Extension records chronicling the development of rural communities across California; and rare books, maps, audiovisual and other archival material related to the Central and Southern Sierra Nevada.

Archives are seen in storage at the UC Merced Library.
More than 100,000 items will be housed in the one-of-a-kind facility. Photo by Rebecca Gourevitch.

Since 2013, the Center for the Humanities has been working with the library to strategize for the development of future humanities collections and archives. The center's director, Presidential Chair in the Humanities and literature Professor Ignacio López-Calvo, said their work will not stop once construction is completed:

"Having done archival research myself on multiple occasions, I am aware of how invaluable it is to have access to these types of resources," he said. "The Center for the Humanities and the UC Merced Library will continue to collaborate on these acquisitions as we collectively strive for R1 status and seek to better serve our region."

Last year, the library was awarded a $200,000 grant from the NEH to continue its work archiving agricultural resources from the region. Merced's location in the heart of the agricultural Central Valley and its historical identity as the "gateway to Yosemite" make the university the fitting home for special research collections about these areas. The library has already stepped up to help preserve collections from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, which faced imminent danger from wildfires.

"These resources often flow out of the region, but to be able to keep them here for this region is very important. The library will be a base for very rich cultural collections," said Emily Lin, director of strategic initiatives, archives and special collections at the library. "It's vital to us that people in the region have access to them."

UC Merced students, K-12 students and members of the community won't be the only ones to benefit from the new facility. The library will also be able to accommodate scholars from around the world who are interested in conducting research on the local national parks and studying the issues surrounding their conservation and management.

Project leaders expect the facility to be fully retrofitted in approximately two years. There will be over 100,000 items housed in the space.

This award is the largest grant that UC Merced has ever received from the NEH and is among the largest grants awarded in this round. This year, the NEH presented more than $33 million in grants for 245 humanities projects across the country.

"The National Endowment for the Humanities is proud to support the University of California, Merced, in its efforts to establish an archive focusing on California's Central Valley and Sierra Nevada regions," said NEH Chair Shelly C. Lowe (Navajo). "This innovative project will expand access to an important collection of historic records, maps, rare books and photographs that document the diverse history of this distinct but under-studied region."

Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the NEH supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the NEH and its grant programs is available online.