Peace Corps Volunteers Archival Collection at the Kennedy Library

In 1986 the Peace Corps celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. As part of the preparation for that event, an effort was made to establish a repository for the personal papers of returned volunteers relating to their experience in the field. This project was carried forward after the anniversary by a small committee of RPCVs, including Suzy McKee Charnas (Nigeria 1961-62), Roger Landrum (Nigeria 1961-62), Margaret Pollock (Korea 1966-68), and myself under the auspices of the then NPCA known as the Natonal Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.

While the official records of the Peace Corps are preserved in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., no institution at the time had been systematically saving personal papers and documents of the former Volunteers and staff. With the passage of time it had become increasingly urgent to gather and preserve the irreplaceable records and observations of PCVs service all over the world. That is one reason Marian Haley Beil (Ethiopia 1962-64) and I started our newsletter Peace Corps Writers & Readers in April, 1989. It was our small way to collect, publish, and promote the writings of RPCVs.

As part of that RPCV committee I began in 1987 a systematic survey of college and community libraries seeking a “home” for RPCVs documents. Among several colleges eager to obtain the material were Notre Dame University and Georgetown. I thought we could find a ‘grander’ home for our records and I also called the Kennedy Library and spoke to the chief archivist. In my mind, and the committee’s thinking, no group symbolized President Kennedy’s commitment to public service more than Peace Corps Volunteers.

The Kennedy Library agreed.

In early 1988, the committee recommended and the National Council accepted that the new collection be permanently housed in the John F. Kennedy Library. The purpose of the collection was to document the experiences of Peace Corps Volunteers and staff by collecting and preserving letters, diaries, manuscripts, books, photographs,audiotapes, films, drawings, and other items created during or after one’s service.

The official announcement of the new collection took place on November 30, 1988  in a ceremony at the Kennedy Library.

What we did not know at that time was that the Kennedy Library only wanted the papers of Volunteers who had served during the Kennedy years.

So, since then there have been other Peace Corps collections started by RPCVs in Portland, Oregon, and at American University in Washington. The collection at American University was started by Patrica Wand (Colombia 1963-65) who worked at American U. In addition, there are now Peace Corps papers of individuals at universities and colleges across the U.S.

What would be wonderful is a listing of these locations and collections readily available for PCVs, RPCVs, and future historians. Is there anyone in our RPCV community who could step up and undertake this challenge? It is certainly a great way for an RPCV to fulfill the Third Goal of the Peace Corps.

First Peace Corps Book Locker, 1961

9 Comments

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  • John,

    We do have a unofficial guide to some of the location of the Peace Corps collections. Here is the link:
    http://peacecorpsworldwide.org/resources-unofficial-guide-to-peace-corps-and-its-history/

    I advocate for a Peace Corps Library because I believe that a catalog and finding aid for all the collections takes professional training and certification. Some of the universities restrict access to their students. Most of the early work is not digitalized and so is not readily available.

  • Yes, we need a library, and yes, we need everyone’s help in tracking down these official and unofficial archives! An RPCV once told me that a chair should be endowed at a university that focuses solely on Peace Corps history. That certainly would inspire much needed scholarship, and as long as there is no official historian at the Peace Corps, it would give everyone a point person to turn to with questions about the agency’s history.

  • A quick — and easily accessed — look at the Special Collections holdings of American University Library shows that they have a well-organized system. In addition to their Peace CorpsCommunity Archives, they also hold the papers of such groups as the Friends of Ghana, The Friends of Columbia, the Friends of Nigeria, plus the National Peace Corps Association and several other groups. An index of some of the boxes in the collection is easily accessed on line, although to work in the Archive one would have to come to the Library which says that its collections are basically open to the public. It seems to me that if one were looking for a place to deposit old letters and papers from Peace Corps service, this would be the place. Check it out:

    https://www.american.edu/library/archives/collections.cfm#manuscript

    Barry Hillenbrand
    Ethiopia 1963-1965

  • Barry,

    The Peace Corps Community Archives is an excellent collection. It does accept source materials from RPCVs. However, it is very important to note that such items become the property of American University and are not in the public domain. The oral histories at the JFK library and the source documents from RPCVs who served or were in training on or before November 22, 1963 are in the public domain.

    Not all of the special group collections have a finding aid. So, it is not always possible to check online about exactly what individual RPCVs have donated. I had hoped that the Friends of Colombia collection, for example, would have a finding aid for all the RPCV donated items, but so far that has not happened. I have visited the library and have found it very useful, but it is hard to use online.

    I still think that we need a Peace Corps Library not to replace but to supplement the collections that are already in place. Such librarians could do the cataloging that John has suggested. Such a library would facilitate access to all the collections, both public and private. Finally, it would offer protection against “fake” history about the Peace Corps.
    I think such a library should have trained research libraries who are either RPCVs or familiar with Peace Corps history. Here are my proposals:

    http://peacecorpsworldwide.org/a-proposal-for-a-peace-corps-library-part-i/
    http://peacecorpsworldwide.org/a-proposal-for-a-peace-corps-library-part-2/

  • Would it make any sense to initiate a survey of returned volunteers to see who has donated papers and to what institution? Mine went to the Kennedy Library years ago. Until today I had no idea that their PC holdings were limited to President Kennedy’s term of office.

  • Kennedy Library Archival Procedures

    The archival staff evaluates the materials offered for the Peace Corps Volunteer collection in terms of established collection criteria and compatible with Library procedures. The Library administered the donated materials in accordance with terms of each individual donation.

    For further information, contact the
    Peace Corps Collection
    John F. Kennedy Library
    Columbia Point
    Boston, MA, 02125

  • Thanks, John, Joanne et al. I also have a stack of very detailed letters from the Kennedy era, and after the assassination. Would like to donate them. John Turnbull

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