"Then, Now, and Tomorrow": An Interview with Special Collections Librarian Alison Greenlee
This Friday (April 13th), Kino Club and the Wayne State University Libraries have teamed up to organize a free and public screening of the classic science fiction film, Forbidden Planet. Special Collections Metadata Librarian Alison Greenlee has been instrumental in planning this screening and its accompanying lecture (to be delivered by Professor Kevin Deegan-Krause from the Political Science department). In anticipation of this event - our final screening of the semester - I sat down with Alison to talk about the WSU sesquicentennial, science fiction, and the role of the library system in preserving our university's history and preparing for its future.
Shelby Cadwell: First off, could you talk about your role within the WSU Library System, and in particular, with planning Sesquicentennial-related events?
Alison Greenlee: I’m the Special Collections Metadata Librarian. In addition to managing cataloging operations for the entire WSU Library System (WSULS), I make our special collections more discoverable by providing stellar cataloging. The Libraries initiated a Sesquicentennial Task Force to coordinate a cohesive series of WSULS-sponsored programs, including presentations, exhibits, and events to celebrate Wayne State University’s 150th anniversary. When the call for volunteers went out last summer, I jumped on it.
SC: The screening of Forbidden Planet is part of a larger exhibit and lecture on science fiction. What was the thinking behind "science fiction" as an exhibit theme, and how do you see that theme relating to the WSU Sesquicentennial?
AG: Our former Associate Dean Tim Gritten came up with the idea of using science fiction to explore the theme of “then, now, and tomorrow.” Anniversaries are usually focused on the past--we wanted to encompass that aspect as well as look toward the future. We saw it as an opportunity to leverage our science fiction collections and get people interested in the history of WSU.
SC: Related to my last question - what can we expect from the "Then, Now, Tomorrow: Science-Fiction at the Libraries" exhibit? What sorts of materials are being exhibited?
AG: There will be an exhibition preceding the lecture and screening of Forbidden Planet. The Libraries have an impressive juvenile fiction collection, and we found a bunch of sci-fi gems—think Lester Del Rey and Robert A. Heinlein. We really had to limit ourselves to American sci-fi books published in the 1950s and 1960s, otherwise it would’ve been too much! The University was graduating actual rocket scientists from the Aeronautical Engineering program in the 1950s, so we’ve included rocket science books and journals as well. There will also be an online exhibition of many of the above-mentioned material, to be debuted simultaneously.
SC: Forbidden Planet was released in 1956 - the same year that Wayne University officially became Wayne State University. In a way, the film is a time capsule that gives an impression of what the "future" looked like to people living in post-war 1950's America. How do you see science fiction and future-imagining fitting into the conversation about Wayne State's own history and future?
AG: Wayne State began as the Detroit Medical College, so we’ve always had a heavy involvement in science and technology. Although our Aeronautical Engineering program may have been short-lived, the University has always been on the cutting edge of STEM fields. We have “one of the longest, continuously active research programs in biomedical engineering in the world.”1
Researchers there work in tissue engineering and regeneration. In 1952, Dr. Forest Dewey Dodrill at Wayne State’s Harper Hospital was the first surgeon to use a mechanical heart pump, making open-heart surgery possible.2
In 1967, Dr. Adrian Kantrowitz, later a professor in the School of Medicine, performed the first heart transplant in the United States. If that’s not the stuff of science-fiction, I don’t know what is!
SC: If I wanted to learn more about Wayne State's history, what resources (on or off campus) should I check out?
AG: I’d say the number one resource is the University Archives at the Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs. The Archives preserve the official records of the University. There are also a few books that we at the Libraries consult often:
A History of Wayne State University in Photographs by Evelyn Aschenbrenner (Wayne State University Press, 2009). An updated second edition is due out this fall.
A Place of Light: The History of Wayne State University by Leslie L. Hanawalt (Wayne State University Press, 1968). The first published history of WSU.
Wayne University: A History by James Ross Irwin (1951). This doctoral dissertation is purportedly the first comprehensive history of (then) Wayne University.
As always, if you need more information, just ask a Librarian!
1 “About Us.” Biomedical Engineering, Wayne State University, 2018, https://engineering.wayne.edu/bme/about/index.php.
2 “Heart smart: Leading the way in the D.” 2018 Sesquicentennial, Wayne State University, 2018, https://150.wayne.edu/news/heart-smart-leading-the-way-in-the-d-29955.