The archive started small — it was just a handful of private collections compiled in the mid-1980s by local historian Kevin Anderson.
Eventually, the Casper Star-Tribune and Casper Journal decided it would be a better place for their collections as well. Those donations catalyzed the archive’s continued growth. Anderson said their queries jumped from 100 a year to more than 1,100 after those acquisitions.
Now, the Casper College Western History Center, tucked into a corner of the school library, holds more than half a million photos alone, thousands of maps and blueprints, 10,000 books — many by local authors — and a litany of other items donated over the years.
Local historians say there’s only one person who knows the breadth of the history center, and without him, the collection is useless.
But the college just eliminated Vince Crolla’s position.
“And that may as well just be the kiss of death, you may as well just close it,” one of those local historians and a former employee of the history center, Johanna Wickman said.
Wickman is one of more than a dozen people lobbying the college to reverse course and reinstate the archivist role. The group consists of board members of the Fort Caspar Museum Association, the Casper Archeological Society, the Natrona County Historical Society, the Wyoming Historical Society and several other local boards.
The college has made it clear the decision is final. Administrators say the history center will remain open and accessible to the public, but the staffing decision was a budgetary necessity. Local historians contend that without the archivist’s knowledge of the collection, and without that investment from the college, donors will lose confidence and the collection could be dismantled.
The college’s plan
Vice President of Academic Affairs Brandon Kosine said the college does have a plan.
“Our funding doesn’t allow us to support everything at the levels that we want to support it,” Kosine said. “What we would like is to have folks give us a chance to show that we value the collection. … We do have a plan in place. It is going to take a little bit of time to get it to where it needs to be.”
First, Kosine said the history center will be staffed with a certified archivist, just not full time. A vacant full-time librarian position has been reimagined to serve both as a librarian and as the collection archivist. Kosine said the person the college hired for that job is not yet certified as an archivist, but has “significant” experience with that work and will spend at least half their time in the history center.
Kosine is also awaiting a consultant’s report commissioned to gauge the history center’s needs.
The decision to hire the consultant came when it appeared the archivist position would certainly be cut, Kosine said. He said the college was committed to maintaining the Western History Center but needed professional insights into how to manage the space on a limited budget.
“This is just unfortunately one of those programs that we can’t sustain because it’s not reimbursable by the state. And so we need a professional to come in and help us with what are the things that we need to do to at least maintain a minimum level of service given the means that we have,” Kosine said.
Kosine expected to have that report by Friday. He added that the college has prioritized making much of the collection accessible online, a feature that does not currently exist.
It’s unclear how the new employee will be introduced to the collection.
Crolla, the full-time archivist, was initially meant to stay at the center through June, but Wednesday morning he was informed his last day would actually be Friday.
Crolla declined to comment for this story but confirmed he was departing from the college this week. The college also declined to comment, saying it was a confidential personnel matter.
Enrollment at Wyoming’s second-largest community college has been uncertain amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and the college has seen declines every year for the past decade.
This summer the college began slashing 10% of its budget at the direction of Gov. Mark Gordon, who asked all colleges and state agencies to make those cuts amid an ongoing budget shortfall precipitated by the declining fossil fuel industry.
Those cuts cost the college $2.4 million, and administrators were told to brace for more.
In February, anticipating further cuts, the college announced it would be eliminating 15 positions, and eight people would be laid off — the history center’s archivist position among them.
“When we were looking at what the budget was going to be or what we were projecting the budget to be for this year, I think it’s important to know that it was kind of a crapshoot throughout the whole thing,” Kosine said.
He went on: “When we were looking at the decision-making process ... we looked at all positions and we looked at all programs and (what) our No. 1 guiding principle was. We were trying to keep the cuts as far away from the classroom as possible to make sure that we didn’t disrupt the student experience or resources that our students needed.”
The history center was identified as more community-facing than student-centered, Kosine said. But that reasoning has rubbed many in the community the wrong way.
At a recent board of trustees meeting, Wickman asked why students aren’t required to utilize the center for classwork, similarly to how students must participate in labs and other hands-on education.
A former Casper College student also raised an issue with the rationale. Paul Yurkiewicz, a member of the Casper Historic Preservation Commission, said he used the center often as a student and his peers did as well.
Multiple people who have written books with the help of the history center also spoke at that meeting, including Kem Nicolaysen, who authored a book about historical Casper, and Susan Haines, who wrote a book about the historic property she owns, the Gothberg Ranch.
Several members of the public worried that the college would not be able to keep its promises about the collection without a full-time employee overseeing it.
Shannon Tippit, a board member for the Fort Caspar Museum Association, said she believes donor confidence has been rattled.
“Donors could very possibly start taking their stuff away and putting it in other places,” Tippit said. “Confidence that their materials will be taken care of goes down the drain if we have a person that’s only going to be there for part of their position.”
Local historians have been trying to reach a compromise with the college since before the archivist role was officially eliminated.
Wickman said she spoke with Denise Bressler, the director of the Casper College foundation, in November after hearing rumors that the archivist position was in jeopardy. Wickman said she asked Bressler to notify her before a final decision was made because the community could help fund the position temporarily until a more sustainable solution could be found.
But Wickman said she never got a call.
It’s also unclear who owns the items donated to the history center.
A gift agreement donors are asked to sign indicates donations to the history center belong to the Casper College Foundation, but the foundation director said that is not the case.
Bressler said the foundation only owns appraised items of high value, but everything else the foundation gives to the college. Both Bressler and Crolla confirmed that very few items in the collection have been appraised, and Bressler said that in those few instances, it was done by the donor.
The gift agreement donors are asked to sign says nothing about appraisal, nor does it explain that the college will likely own the donated items.
Bressler said that policy is not written down anywhere, but it’s understood within the foundation as “the way we’ve always done it.”
Some donors have worried that without a clear understanding of who owns the collection, it may be harder to retrieve their item. As of Monday, though, no donors had asked for their items back, Bressler said.
Follow health and education reporter Morgan Hughes on Twitter @m0rgan_hughes