June 18, 2024

Carolyn Parsons: Living History

Carolyn Parsons has her hand on the pulse of Mary Washington’s past. From James Farmer’s academic papers to Devil-Goat Day memorabilia, the head of Special Collections and University Archives helps preserve the relics and records that tell our story.

Carolyn Parsons

Carolyn Parsons

Parsons has served in her current role since 2003. But her own Mary Wash history runs much deeper.

“I am one of the early graduates of UMW’s Historic Preservation program,” she said, earning a degree in 1983.

Parsons went on to work for the National Park Service and the Library of Virginia and earn a master’s degree in library science with a concentration in archives management. She returned to her alma mater in 1995 as a reference librarian.

As head of Special Collections, she helps oversee 1,500 volumes of rare books and journals that date to the 16th century and include first and limited editions.

As an archivist, “I make sure that UMW’s institutional history is preserved for future generations,” Parsons said.

That not only includes older records but also digital materials: UMW’s website, blogs and social media posts.

Q: What’s the most unusual record you’ve come across?
A: There is a wonderful collection of scrapbooks that includes saved corsages, political pins, locks of hair, fun roommate photos. But I’ve also run across a McDonald’s apple pie box and peanut shells from the popular 1960s Freshman Peanut Week.

There’s also a lot of fun correspondence, like a 1939 letter from President Combs to the dorm hostesses asking them to prevent students from putting signs up with hairpins because it was ruining the screen doors!

Q: What do you like about your work?
A: No two days are ever the same. One day I can be collaborating with faculty and students on an exhibit, teaching a class on primary resources or helping a researcher locate blueprints of the campus buildings.

Q: What’s the best part of your job?
A: Mentoring and sharing my passion for archives and Mary Washington with our students. Many have gone into the archives field and are working with collections at a number of prominent institutions. I also get to work every day with wonderful collections, from 17th century vellum-bound atlases to UMW’s founding legislation.

Q: Any recent big projects?
A: We went live with two new cloud-based repositories, Preservica and Eagle Scholar. Preservica is a digital preservation system that preserves and makes accessible UMW’s unique Special Collections materials. Eagle Scholar is an open-access institutional repository that showcases faculty and student scholarship.

Q: Is there a motto you tell yourself every day?
A: “Forever – is composed of Nows.” It’s a line from an Emily Dickinson poem that reminds me to be in the present, to strive to do my best work daily and, most importantly, to enjoy each day!


  1. Scott H. Harris '83 says

    Hats off to my classmate Carolyn!