University Libraries Special Collections and Archives Launches ‘George Mason University: A History’

Posted: August 21, 2012 at 1:02 pm, Last Updated: August 28, 2012 at 3:44 pm

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By Mark Schwartz, University Libraries

An aerial photo of then-George Mason College taken in 1965 and showing the four original buildings on the Fairfax Campus: East, South, West, and North. Atkins, Oliver F., “George Mason College, Fairfax campus, 1965, aerial photograph looking east.,” A History of George Mason University, accessed August 21, 2012,

To document Mason’s modest beginnings to its current prominence, the University Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives recently launched “George Mason University: A History.”

The web portal is a digital exhibition detailing eras in Mason’s 60-year development in Northern Virginia.  Each exhibit contains essays about the significant places, people and events within that era.  The essays include links to illustrative digitized artifacts.  While it is not meant to be a comprehensive history of Mason, the portal attempts to describe the important waypoints and issues, says John Zenelis, university librarian.

This online historical experience commences in 1949 and continues to the presidency of Ángel Cabrera.

“Unlike standard university history that involves a long chronological account, this portal is more a collection of ‘stories.’  The portal is scholarly, dynamic and accessible,” says Zenelis.

“George Mason University: A History” strives to bring all types of media together in one place.  Many of the digitized materials are photographs of persons and places in Mason’s history, but there are also single- and multi-page documents and audio and video recordings.

There are also some obscure and whimsical items, such as a 1962 letter from then-George Mason College Director John Norville Gibson Finley explaining to a confused New York Times subscription manager that “Mr. George Mason” does not reside at the Bailey’s Crossroads address.

And there are more significant items, like the 1956 Commonwealth of Virginia’s General Assembly Resolution creating George Mason College and the deed to the land on which the Fairfax Campus was built.

The Phone Call

Though Mason’s official operational history begins in August 1957 when it opened as a branch college of the University of Virginia in Bailey’s Crossroads with a student body of 17, the institution known as George Mason College, and later George Mason University, had been in the planning since 1949.

That year, University of Virginia President Colgate W. Darden telephoned C. Harrison Mann Jr., president of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the University of Virginia Alumni Association, telling him that “the people of Northern Virginia need higher education, but they don’t know it yet.”  Mann agreed to organize a group of Northern Virginians to help the University of Virginia establish a center for adult education in Arlington.  The operators of the Northern Virginia University Center, which opened in 1950, then worked to establish the branch campus that eventually became known as George Mason College.

John Norville Gibson Finley, director of the Northern Virginia University Center, and assistant Ruth Frank prepare a classroom on the campus of Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va. [K. Baker], “John Norville Gibson Finley and assistant set up desks in a classroom, Northern Virginia University Center, December 22, 1953.,” A History of George Mason University, accessed August 21, 2012,

“Mann was a great friend to the university, even before it came into being,” says Robert Vay, an archivist in Special Collections and Archives.  “After Mann’s death in 1977, his personal papers were gifted to George Mason University Libraries. Visitors to the site will learn about him and the others involved in our founding.”

Taken as a whole, the portal illustrates the growth and development of the university throughout the years while attempting to explain the origins of buildings, academic programs, centers, institutes and traditions. Site visitors will discover how the school colors came to be green and gold, when students and athletic teams became known as the “Patriots,” the origins of the university logo and when Mason Day began.

The site was created by a team of archivists, librarians and students. Without the work of a group of graduate and undergraduate students, the site would not have been built, Vay says. And several scholarships funded in 2011 by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Mason helped launch the project.

“Mason’s Auxiliary Enterprises Management Council gave us additional funding so we could complete it, although it can never really be completed,” Vay says.  “We will continue building on it.”

The Future

“George Mason University: A History” has evolved from a series of published articles, web postings and exhibitions created by Special Collections and Archives principally during the last decade.  “I’m sure the portal will energize interest and launch more detailed research into Mason’s history,” says Yvonne Carignan, head of Special Collections and Archives.

The portal is built on Omeka, a digital publishing and exhibitions platform that was developed by Mason’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.   It will support, expand and curate the content into the future.

“‘George Mason University: A History’ will grow as the university it is chronicling continues to thrive,” says Zenelis.


Write to Robin Herron at

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