Handwritten names of students enrolled at ISNU in the mid-19th century

Historic ISNU enrollment ledgers document the first students at the University

Helen Frances Grennell was 16 years old when she first entered Illinois State Normal University. From Hudson, Illinois, Grennell was born in Lynn, Massachusetts. Her father, a farmer, was Hiram W. Grennell. Her family’s farm is likely what led to Helen’s spotty attendance at the University; she left after her first and fourth terms and returned in her third and fifth years. She was one of the first students to sign up for classes at Illinois State Normal University on October 5, 1857. She graduated in 1862 and later taught in Bloomington and Decatur.

Thanks to the diligent care of the team at the University Registrar’s Office, part of Helen’s life will be forever stored in the first registers of the university. And with the help of Milner Library, researchers will be able to learn about Helen, her classmates, and thousands of other Redbird alumni who attended Illinois State Normal University from 1857 to 1923.

“Well I saw on the Antiques Roadshow how these old ledgers from institutions are the ‘Cradle of an Institution’” says Cameo Good, a records supervisor in the Registrar’s Office. After watching the episode, Good went to her then supervisor, Ed Mayer, to discuss options for protecting the ledgers. Mayer agreed and reached out to Milner Library. The staff in Milner’s Preservation Department measured the ledgers and created acid-free boxes specifically for the storage of the ledgers. It was at that time the Registrar’s Office began digitizing their older records cards. However, the ledgers were too large for their scanning equipment. “You see it was beginning to fade in some parts of the books” recalls Good, commenting on the ink that was almost completely faded from the ledgers’ pages. The Registrar’s Office then reconnected with Milner Library to have the ledgers scanned using their specialized equipment.

The ledgers were digitized by Sara Caldwell at the library’s Digitization Center. Caldwell transported the ledgers to the digitization lab in Milner Library to perform the delicate work. Her approach to capturing the handwriting on the pages was to make sure the content was legible for researchers rather than focusing on cosmetic nuances. In the interest of making the records available to researchers, the ledgers are now accessible online through Illinois State’s institutional repository, ISU ReD. The files, though large, can be downloaded as PDF images and scrolled through, similar to scrolling through pages in a book. Though the ledgers are not currently keyword searchable, the library plans to explore how to make that feature available.

Preserving Redbird history happens all across campus! Without the helpful staff at the Registrar’s Office and Milner Library, and technology like ISU ReD, Helen’s story and many others might have been lost to time.