Finding treasures on the SUU campus

By Dawn M. Aerts

Iron County Today

CEDAR CITY–In the Special Collections Room at the Gerald R. Sherratt Library at Southern Utah University, you will find more than history, periodicals, compiled letters or volumes of books from the past, said Paula Mitchell, Librarian and specialist in archival research.

For Mitchell, and the many visitors who spend time in her collection, there are countless ‘treasures’ waiting to be discovered in family folders and little-known files and papers that are part of a hands-on and digital-based, online library at (SUU).

“Most of this collection is tied to this region and our communities,” said Mitchell of the ornate rooms that surround a centerpiece of work desks and walls that feature the portraits of noteworthy personalities from the past.  “You’ll find writing and articles on the Mountain Meadows massacre, the pioneer trails and the Pony Express.”

The collection is vast, with deposits of books and periodicals focused on everything from the Spanish Trail, and the Southern Paiute Tribe of Utah, to Shakespearean books and period material on the LDS Church.  According to Mitchell, it was Tom Challis and Inez Cooper who organized, gleaned and collected history from across campus and the community back in 1962 – that led to this ‘Collection.’

“There are roughly 246,546 volumes here, a circulation of 62,665 items per year, that serves a full-time student population of up to 10,000,” said Mitchell of her work, “And over the past decade we have been able to capture (digitized photos) online of roughly 40,000 images specific to this area.”

Mitchell, who is a native of Cedar City, says her own interest in the world of books, documents, archives and reading came about through her own parents: her father, a personnel director and an accountant at SUU until his retirement in 1994; and her mother, who served as a third-grade teacher at East Elementary school.

“I was always intrigued with the early SUU campus and the history here,” said Mitchell, who earned a Bachelor of Science degree at SUU and a Master’s degree at the University of North Texas in 2004. “My husband and I left for some time while I taught second grade in Montana. When we returned, I didn’t want to re-certify as a teacher, but instead decided to take a position at the Library.”

According to Mitchell, she fell in love with the process of organizing, filing and record-keeping and decided at the urging of a friend to pursue an archival management course through Rutgers University in New Jersey.  “I have to say that taking this course, and later, accepting a position as Special Collections Librarian, was like coming home. It was a natural fit for me.”

She credits Janet Seegmiller with her faithful work as a special collections coordinator and the work of Matthew Nickerson, who began the lengthy and complex process of linking the physical materials and records to an online catalogue that is well-organized and indexed with ongoing work to include and expand on collections and images.

Mitchell has worked with many visitors, fervent researchers and writers over the past few years.

“There were a number of outstanding projects that began here,” said Mitchell of Josh LaMore’s “Beauty Beyond Telling, The Story of Cedar Breaks; the James Aton book “The Art and Life of Jimmie Jones;” and the writing “Mountain Meadow Massacre” by Richard E. Turley.

She said it is common for families to share and offer memoirs, journals, and records that pertain to the earliest history of Iron County and their own community.  “You never know… as you’re preserving a certain folder of papers or file, how of this story may become not only useful but valuable to a future visitor or writer,” said Mitchell.

Her days are kept full in accommodating research requests, pondering old and newly acquired documents, as well as caring for the collection that falls under her care.

“I and others at SUU ‘dabble’ in some of the genealogy that comes our way,” said Mitchell. “The family documents can come from surrounding counties, from people who have lived in Beaver, Kane, Garfield and Iron County all of their lives.”

This, said Mitchell, is more than a repository of books and records.

“This collection includes wonderful information on Zion National Park and Cedar Breaks, the history of the college (the Branch Normal School, circa 1897) and we’re now working on student newspapers from the 1990’s,” she said. “So I find that each day is different, in a place where you can find many ‘treasures’ from the past.”

According to Mitchell the world of technology has intersected with history.  “You don’t have to travel to a place any longer. You can sit in your home and access all of these things — there is a window wide open in time, and a researcher or visitor will find what they may be searching for or something they never expected to find.”

Visitors to the Special Collections Room will find family legacies and the roots of a community at their fingertips.  “Research takes time, so I like to see people who are prepared to spend a few hours, or days, and will take the opportunity to ponder their course, and goals,” said Mitchell of the job that feels like home.

“We are ready to help, to answer the questions, to find the material, or the treasure trove. But do your homework.”

Photo Caption:  Paula Mitchell, Assistant Professor, Special Collections Librarian is at home at the Gerald R. Sherratt Library (SUU) where she assists visitors and researchers with questions and information on the historical roots of families, communities and surrounding counties (regional). For information about the Iron County Historical Society events, or for Special Collections Research questions,, or 435-586-7976.

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