Interview With Denise Monbarren

Dublin Core


Interview With Denise Monbarren


Special collections; Women's studies; Sexuality; Student activism; Archives; Religious thought--20th century; AIDS (Disease); NAMES Project Quilt;


This is an interview with Denise Monbarren. She is the Special Collections librarian at The College of Wooster. Denise talks about first coming to Wooster and changes that she has seen in both the campus climate and the WGSS program. Denise talks about the challenges with archiving peoples' stories and how that relates to the WGSS discipline. Denise also talks about the resources available in Special Collections that WGSS students use and have access to.


Harris-Ridker, Matthew
Monbarren, Denise






OHLA Undergraduate Fieldwork Fellow/Faculty Mentor Microgrant, College of Wooster Libraries


Presented with permission from Denise Monbarren

In Copyright










Youngstown; Wooster

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Harris-Ridker, Matthew


Monbarren, Denise


College of Wooster Digital Studio


Denise Monbarren Intervew

Edited by Matthew Harris-Ridker and Denise Monbarren for clarity 

[00:00:00] MHR: All right. So I'm here with Denise Monbarren, our Special Collections Librarian here at Wooster. It is May 24th [2018]. Hello Denise.

[00:00:09] DM: Hi Matthew.

[00:00:11] MHR: Thank you for coming. So to begin the interview I'm just going to start off with some introductory questions. So where are you from and how did you end up at Wooster?

[00:00:21] DM: I grew up outside of Youngstown, Ohio -- Strothers, a very small town steel town. I went to Kent State for both my undergraduate and my graduate. After getting my library science degree, the person that I had been spending a lot of time with and I decided that we were going to get married. And he just happened to be in this area. And there was a very temporary position here at the college, which was supposed to be a five month position, and that was in January 1985. And needless to say I stayed a little longer. It's now been 33 plus years!

[00:01:04] MHR: Very nice! So what is your background and women's studies, gender studies, WGSS Department?

[00:01:08] DM: I guess I've always been interested in various topics related to gender studies. And partially that's because of my interest in dance for many years. Dance and theater, as well as literature and art. And while I was at Kent I was very involved as a student in various things including the editing of the creative arts magazine. And so it was very very much an activist campus

[00:01:40] from 1978 to 1983 when I finished my first graduate degree. And during that time period when I was at Kent I was very much involved with people from all of those Disciplines, and doing things like Take Back the Night.  And of course we worked with women's reproductive issues during that time period, extremely a part of the time period. So that by the time I got to campus here in 1985, right out of graduate school, of course I had more, probably, in common with a lot of the students on campus than I did with the faculty. But because of the areas that I was interested in, the faculty in those areas… I was very lucky. I worked with the English Departments. I had Joanne Frye, who was also very big in Women's Studies, and I worked with her and her classes and also worked with the French Department, Carolyn Durham, and theater Department. And so in the end of the 80s then we also had a lot of students and faculty on campus. The circles that were ever tightening that got together. A lot of the students that I had supervised here in the library were some of the very first students who came through the Women's Studies major. Also, there was a small group of faculty that were younger faculty.  We used to meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays downtown for feminist discussion groups. So we did that in the late 80s. And then by the early 90s more and more involvement, and some of that was at the national level starting to hit our campus, or I was working with people like Deb Hilty who was interested in changing our policy, especially since AIDS was such a big crisis at the time period, and worked with students and faculty here on our campus to help bring the NAMES AIDS quilt to campus.

[00:03:44] I also worked with students in the what was then the Women's Studies program and was co-I.S. adviser on I.S. related to one of our collections, and Special Collections, Mother, Home and Heaven collection. But as I said it was a little bit of everything. A little bit from the activist views. The campus has certainly grown, you know, to a much more inclusive campus. But back in the late 80s, I think there was a small circle of support network. Younger faculty who wanted to raise issues who wanted to change policy as well as students wanting to change policy. And we had a very activist campus in the late 80s and early 90s. So that's the way I sort of got into it and I've sort of been working in various aspects, more from the research, and helping the students in terms of research in the most recent years.  

[00:04:47] MHR: Talk a little bit more about the…what the campus climate was like when you first came and, like, how you've seen it change. 

[00:04:54] It has changed a lot. I think of course, you know, we're always a microcosm of what's happening in the larger world. And certainly, you know, coming from a place like Kent State where it was very activist, to Wooster, which perhaps in the early 80s… we weren't seeing that quite as much. And I got here in 85, where I think it was just starting to shift a little bit at that time period, the campus. The biggest issues tended to be more towards looking at diversity issues. But we were also starting to see more with gender, more concern.

[00:05:32] If you were just to look at the student newspaper, The Wooster Voice, and you see… you take a look at the issues from 1985 when I first got here to the 88-89, and certainly up through 91, because the editors were also people that were taking WGSS classes. And you will see that there were active columns that showed up every week. So you had something called Miss Conception that was an advice column every week. And you had a lot more people being brought to campus during that time period and we were starting to have more conversation I think at the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s. Certainly the beginning of the 90s, too, we saw more organization happening. When I was here in 85, it's not that there weren't these conversations happening, but as was the the kind of conversation that was happening at many smaller places.  While even at Kent, to tell you the truth, support systems and Women's Studies programs tended to be very confidential. And so you had things happening in a very closed knit society. So you'd go into classes, you'd go into these types of events or discussions where they were a safe protective spaces but they were safe and protected for people they needed to protect. Which was wonderful. But they did not let outsiders in. And so you didn't have that cross pollination for people who were the allies that wanted to support what was going on.

[00:07:12] And I think that people began to push out of that bubble a little bit more in the late 80s, in the early 90s, and almost because they had to.  Because of course, you know, we started to see more activism around things, like I said, because it was the beginning of the AIDS crisis when it really started to hit in a big way nationally, so discrimination. So we had to look at our policy statements. We had to look at that. So the kinds of things that happened in the early 90s was a response as we… as… you know, you've been here for a while on this campus and you see the way change is slow and sometimes it requires something happening to get pushback. And you see these constant pushbacks when you go a few steps forward and then things calm down. But during the early 90s was a huge, I think, a huge activist period. And perhaps that slowed a little bit after 9/11. I think everybody took a step back and it was very peaceful in terms of perhaps not quite the activism that we'd seen the in student groups. And you get those waves on campus with faculty that are here for a while, and faculty that leave, with students that are here for their four years and so their organization that they bring to light, you know, is being, you know, up and running as they are seniors. But if they're not the first years and the sophomores who are coming in afterwards to take, you know, to take up the slack. Now I'm seeing more and more voices being heard.  Like the past couple of years I think we're seeing another surge which is kind of nice. It is very nice to see after a couple of periods of dormancy.

[00:09:01] MHR: Yeah. So were you involved at all when the program changed from just Women's Studies to Women's, Gender Sexuality Studies?

[00:09:10] DM:  Yes, in the sense that I've been working with the students the entire time period. And, you know, certainly these are changes that I think was always a part of what was understood among people in the program. I think to actually name and claim it was a nice change. You know, I don't know that it necessarily, for the people in the program, that it changed it in a huge way from what I could see other than the fact we were finally owning it. And I think it did help, I think, bring more people into the program who felt that they perhaps had a more of a place. And so in that way I think that was more welcoming.  

[00:09:52] MHR: Sounds like it was kind of, like, it was an unspoken Women's, Gender Sexuality Studies...

[00:09:56] DM: Right!

[00:09:58] MHR: ...Department but putting a name to it sort of helped it become more official.

[00:10:04] DM: And I think that in many ways that happens in so many different ways. You know I hate to think how many years I've been watching this because it feels like I just got here, but I think that certainly we evolve, the language changes. I keep watching what has gone on with the various student groups and the name changes and because I'm in archives I have to log these changes too. And that's quite interesting to watch how the trends will push in people so that they feel… and I think it is a sense of ownership and to have the students in the faculty who are up and coming take ownership.  And, you know, to rename as a way to claim.

[00:10:44] And so I watch as the language changes and the way things are constantly evolving and I think it's a way to see what is happening on campus and where the push is and the shoves. Because, you know, you had these umbrella groups and then you'd have a lot of fractures and then you'd get an umbrella group again. And then you will see now when I watch the posters and see all the groups that are assigned to an event, you know, and who all helping to sponsor it, and you see the partnerships that are happening. You didn't see that as much a long time ago. It was always you understood that, “oh this was this kind of event,” you know, “this is an LGBT event. This is a Women's Studies event.” Now when you see events that are shared by so many people whether or in Departments and the Dean of Students Office and the President's office.  It's nice to see that people are taking ownership and saying this is our community and our community has many players. It's not just this person or this person. It's a thought of many groups coming together to sponsor. And that's a change. That's a real change on this campus.  

[00:11:59] MHR: That's awesome! So my next question goes more towards the special collectors, where you work. Can you tell me about any of the items or collections that are most used by the WGSS students or faculty?

[00:12:13] DM: Well one of the things that I am most proud of, and this is actually the reason why I did my first advising for an I.S., was that one of my student employees Cara Gilgenbach, who is now the curator at

[00:12:28] Kent State special collections, was coming through in the Women's Studies program. And I'd been working to help with this collection, Mother, Home and Heaven collection. And it was an honor of Josephine Long Wishart, who was President Charles F. Wishart's wife. It's a popular advice literature for women specifically, although there also includes popular advice to men as well and to young boys and young girls. Definitely comes out of a very Christian kind of tradition, of course. Starts with early 19th century and the idea of the angel in the house kind of thing. But a lot of my colleagues working at the library in the early 90s could not understand why we would pull it together as a collection and say, “well these are the kinds of books you can find on anybody's grandmother's shelf or, you know, down at the used bookstore! How can we use this special collection?” And it's a wonderful collection because the original collection's over 700 titles. And we have added more as we've seen things that were in our general stacks, or things that people once they saw the collection actually added more to… is that you can take a look at what was expected. What were the social norms of particular time periods for gender and sex role? To look at everything from the, of course, Christian nuclear family, to looking at roles within the house, outside the house, how these changed during periods of war, World War I, World War II. We have cookbooks. We have, you know, recipes during different time periods but we also have things like reproduction. We work not just with WGSS but, for example, working with the History of Sexuality class this past couple of semesters.

[00:14:28] And so we could look at, you know, primary source materials. There's the self sex books, the series that are very interesting because, of course, you know when these things were not discussed when you are a certain age you would just get this little book beside your nightstand and say, “OK you are now a young boy. This is what's going to happen to your body.” And, of course, very binary kind of set up. And this is your expectation for this time period for the girls, you know, a certain age and then for the wedding night and just to take you right through the steps. But there are also early contraception manuals. There are a lot of information, certainly the old Comstock books, you know, kind of things a lot of primary source materials that are there that did help us to get an idea of what was an expectation during a different time period and how does that evolve and how does it change? For a while, we actually, and this was another way I got involved on campus, is that the early Women's Studies program, even before it became a program, had a little safe space over in Lowry Center in the basement that was called the Women's Resource Center. And it was just a gathering of materials that would be helpful. And that was definitely, we say women's resource, it was definitely a sexuality studies and definitely not specific to gender. I mean it was a very fluid kind of collection that was being, being put there. And that collection kept getting shaped by books that people would leave their, journals that people would leave there, things that would come and go.

[00:16:14] I don't know how many times we would have a go through and help cull, help go through and organize to make it more responsive to a particular student population at a particular time period. Eventually this went over to Kauke. And so Christa and I worked with that a while ago when we brought those into special collections and added those as a complement to the Mother, Home and Heaven collection so that we now… also has an LGBT materials in there, some more current materials on reproduction and other kinds of things. But those collections are being used constantly with the WGSS Department. We've had students do every thing from I.S.'s that studies on the advertisements for feminine hygiene products throughout the years. We've had students who have taken WGSS courses and also taken history courses who've looked at physical culture in the late 19th century and the early 20th century and done I.S.'s like the bra and the bicycle and what this meant for history of women. That is a collection that I had to fight tooth and nail for to say, “let's keep it here, let's not split it up! Let's make it a real special collection, a popular culture collection, that can be a resource of primary source materials.”  And it is still the most used collection that we have. And it's not just WGSS but, you know, history, art students have looked at it. We've had Soc. students who've made use of the collection. But I would say definitely we always do our Feminist Methodology course [visit] when we do a nice exercise. I think you were in that. 

[00:18:07] MHR: Yeah yeah, I was, I was!  I think I saw that collection in my Junior I.S. class.

[00:18:13] DM: Right. And we also did… we do an exercise.  We look at Mother, Home and Heaven kinds of issues in advice literature, looking at Ladies Home Journal, some Better Housekeeping, that aren't a part of that collection, but we also have added that. It's just so that that way we can, you know, take a look and see this popular advice change in the same publication which has a specific demographic from the 1940s up through even today. And what is being pitched at and how does this change. So that's definitely one of the biggest collections that are used by WGSS students. But we've also had students who have taken a look at some of our early female faculty because College of Wooster, in our archives, Annie B. Irish was our first female faculty. And she came to Wooster because Wooster would give her the Ph.D. at a time the Johns Hopkins would not.

[00:19:13] MHR: Wow!

[00:19:13] DM: There are other things in our collection that people make use but certainly in terms of the WGSS program we've used the Mother, Home and Heaven collection on so many different levels. From an introductory level, to the I.S. level, with many students and they've just gotten so much out of it.

[00:19:32] MHR: That's awesome! I think it's really cool that Wooster has a collection like that that's become such a popular and, like, solid collection. So my next question, what challenges do you think small programs like WGSS face in creating digital archives of their past or, like, just creating archives in general?

[00:19:55] DM: Well one of the problems I think we have here at Wooster is there wasn't an official college archives until I created it. So I worked behind the scenes from 1990 to 1995 when we opened special collections to start a college archives.

[00:20:13] So we don't have some of the general information about the college history that we're having to go back. And, you know, when alumns give us things and certainly we try. We have a lot of the student publications and the yearbooks. Those kind of everyday sources that most college archives have. But in terms of student organizations and in terms of, you, the kind of events that might have happened that, that weren't collected.  I send students out onto campus every week and after events happened the Flyers come into special collections so that we can gather those and try to keep track of them. And since I'm on the WGSS listserv, and I get the WGSS emails, I can, you know, I can go through an archive, what is happening within the Department, curricular changes that type of thing. But it's the students stories that that are all important. Especially for the people who might have the scrapbooks, might have the pictures, might have the memories of things before we were starting to collect. And so that the kind of digital timeline that Marina was putting together, the kind of work that you're doing now to help collect those stories is a really good thing because what we're doing is collecting the voices. And the other thing is that certainly all liberal arts colleges, and any kind of community, like I said so much of it was not discussed openly.

[00:21:56] Prior to the late 80s, you know, that there were these little segments of things that were going on campus that the people that were here during those time periods if you can get their stories, get their collections, their memories, their pictures because so much of it was done behind closed doors. That going to be the really hard thing.

[00:22:19] MHR: Yeah.

[00:22:31] DM: You know, because there might have been something very important going on. I know that there was a very active Lambda Wooster in early 90s. But really there was a small group of students that were doing that and a lot of people outside that group didn't necessarily know what was going on. Because there was still, even by that time period, there was a certain amount of, “this is happening within our group,” and yes they were public events, but how much you're going to be able to collect about their, you know, what life every day was like for students on the campus at that particular time period. Or for some of the very first students coming through in the program, would be great if you got the early alumns. You know, that the people that became the first majors and to say okay what was life on the campus, what does this mean to you to be one of the very first Women's Studies majors and to get those voices. And you do still have some students who are still around. Sharon Rice was one of the people on campus now that she's still on campus. And, you know, when you get to the alumni weekends and get some of those people coming back, would be great if you could do some of those oral histories with them. And if they have some of their scrapbooks, or memories, or photos and, you know, to encourage them to build buildings that way. I know that other digital projects have been cultivated in that way.

[00:23:50] Brenda Meese has been dealing with the Women's History and, and sports. And so every alumni weekend she would try to get the people back, you know, and say, “can you identify people in the photos? Can you do that just to even to get the meta-data for those digital objects?” And it's to get the more collective memory that you can.  

[00:24:13] MHR: Yeah. Yeah, part of this project, I'm trying hard to talk to students who graduated more recently and more before the program, but for everyone listening, if there's not something there, get those stories! Yeah, so you talked a lot about, just now about, what kinds of material you think is going to be particularly useful for the WGSS Discipline to collect and preserve. But I guess another question I have is, if there's a dream's special collections you could help create or you want to see Wooster have, what would that be?  

[00:24:52] DM:  Wooster keeps changing. So I think the most important thing is that we continue to listen to what the student's needs are. Since I get to work with all of the students for the research projects and I do get to know the students either because of the students that I supervise in my Department. You know many of them are members of organizations that are very WGSS oriented, like k(no)w or Vox or that type of thing. I get to hear what their concerns are and it's just as I get to see the research projects then it's like, “oh! Well we've got this! Maybe we could build in this area!” But I think it's, it's very important for students to constantly say, “hey! There's something here that needs to be addressed. So we need to look for something more.”  Certainly, in terms of archives I would say, you know,

[00:25:50] I would love to be able to have more of the Student Organization materials. We try to get as much as possible to try to organize them. But when the student groups are trying, you know, when I have student leaders that are associated with special collections and they know that we're collecting things then I can get minutes, I can get flyers, I can get all that kind of thing just to document the life of the campus. That's one kind of collection. But then when you have students who are interested in particular areas, for example, reproductive rights then I know, for example, that that there is an interest in that. Then I get people who will contact me and say, “would you be interested in these books?” And, for example, this summer one of the people that was associated with the college, Jimmy Meyer, who had done her work on research on reproductive rights in Cleveland, Ohio said, “you know, I'm trying to weed my collection, would you like some of my backlog of books?” And it's like, “yes!” Because this is something that was just… you know, anything that you give us is going to help complement what we already have. So this kind of finds and so much of what we have in special collections that students are using are because they saw the original collection and the great use. You know we had the original collection and then we saw, then Jimmy Myers said that, “well because you've got this, let me add this!”

[00:27:30] And we also, you knows, have the Nancy Herbst Sechrest because Nancy, who's an alum, was a librarian, said, “you know I've been collecting women's biographies for years. Can we add that to Special Collections?” And it's like, “Sure!” So it's the Wooster network which… you know, never underestimate it.

[00:27:56] MHR: Yeah. Yeah, so you really did a good job of telling us about what Wooster has and also what needs to be brought up and brought into special collections. So those are all the questions I have for you. Is there anything else you want to say in regards to WGSS at Wooster or special collections?  

[00:28:24] DM: I don't think so. I think the wonderful thing, like I said, is the fact that if we can keep, you know, evolving and because it can't be the kind of thing that is like, “well we've collected everything that we're going to collect,” because it is an ongoing task. And I know that when you have these kind of projects that you put in place for an anniversary, it's wonderful. And usually for the first year after an anniversary it's like there's still momentum.  And it would be nice, you know, if students in the program could keep that momentum going and say, “okay, this is not just something for the anniversary, but let's remember that this is a program that is going to continue to change because its population continues to change.” The faculty will continue to change. Every time you get a new faculty in, their interest are brought to this campus just as every time we bring new students you bring your desires, you know, your research needs to campus with you. And because of that we have to keep going forward. So this is a great project.

[00:29:33] I would like to see that, you know, that, that it doesn't end with a digital project or with an oral history project. But that students become more and more excited about collecting their history and to having these interviews with people that went before them or to take note of what's going on around them because sometimes, you know, that happens at the alumni weekend twenty years down the road as opposed to as it's happening. But certainly anything that can be collected that you want to give to the archives, that would be something that we want to make sure that we look at and see what place does it have. You know, to tell our story.

[00:30:15] MHR:  Yeah, yeah important to know. Again for listeners, keep adding to this archive and give your own stories! Thank you so much for coming.

[00:30:27] DM:  Ok, thank you!

Original Format






Harris-Ridker, Matthew and Monbarren, Denise, “Interview With Denise Monbarren,” WGSS at Wooster: Past, Present, and Future , accessed May 24, 2024,