Drawn to the past

March 15th, 2019 Posted in From Our Alumni
Archives she helped build and steward rewarded alumna with stories to share

By Laurie B. Davis

When Barbara Floyd (A/S ’80, ’82, ’89) began attending The University of Toledo in 1976, a professor of American history lectured on a prominent historical figure in her very first class. She knew how the story went and how it ended, but she was mesmerized by the professor’s artful storytelling.

Alumna Barbara Floyd, former University archivist and director of the Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections, poses with her book, “The Glass City: Toledo and The Industry That Built It.”

“Dr. William Longton was the best professor I ever had in my life,” says Floyd. “He proceeded to give the most amazing lecture that I’d ever heard. It was about Columbus discovering America. He told it in a way that I was sitting on the edge of my seat because I wanted to hear the rest of the story.”

Floyd credits the University for inspiring her and giving her life-changing opportunities: first as a student editor and reporter for The Collegian, then as a graduate assistant in history, and then as University archivist and director of the Ward M. Canaday Center at the William S. Carlson Library. The archives she helped build and oversee also provided the pieces of stories she would later stitch together into five historical books.

A career detour

Floyd chose journalism as her major as a young student, but history was never far behind. “I always had an interest in history, and I thought newspaper reporting was a way that you could sort of write the first draft of history,” she says.

Working on The Collegian was challenging but also very rewarding for Floyd. “The experience of producing a newspaper, which at that point, was three times a week, going to school full-time, and trying to be managing editor; it really taught me how you need to schedule your time, how you had to be responsible. If you didn’t do your job, there was going to be a big hole in the newspaper the next day, and that wasn’t acceptable. It was kind of a push into adulthood because you had all of these responsibilities that had to be fulfilled.”

Floyd says her Collegian job helped her get over her shyness and out of her comfort zone, too. Calling up administrators for a story became one of her favorite memories. When she became a UT faculty member, having knowledge of how the University operated was a plus. “I felt a level of comfort that probably I wouldn’t have felt if I hadn’t had that experience,” she says.

She believed journalism was the best fit for her and was practical for finding a job after graduation. “I finished my degree in journalism, and I was ready to go off in that field, but I had the opportunity to get into a graduate assistantship in history, so I did that. That’s what started me on a path toward a career related to history,” says Floyd. Her first job out of college was as an archivist for the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus. “That’s where I learned how to collect and preserve valuable historical materials that researchers could make use of,” says Floyd.

A perfect fit

In 1986, Floyd returned to UT to become the University archivist. “What a perfect job it was for me to come back to The University of Toledo, where I had spent so many formative years of my life, and then to have this job. My job was to preserve the history of the University, and I was just so proud of that because I felt like it was part of who I was, and I had experienced that history,” says Floyd.

Floyd served as University archivist for 31 years and, at the same time, directed the Canaday Center for 15 of those years. “I had the position as director of the Ward M. Canaday Center for longer than anyone else, and I came in at an important time when the center was evolving from being just a rare books repository and the University’s archives, to a center that actively sought to collect materials that documented the larger history of Toledo,” says Floyd.

That expansion made the Canaday Center the place to study the economic history of the city of Toledo, and especially the glass industry. “If you want to study anything about the glass industry in the world, the collections you need to look at are those in the Canaday Center,” says Floyd. “And those collections have attracted researchers from all over the world,” she adds.

Stories of the city

Floyd’s interest in the newly acquired corporate records turned into her “most important research achievement.” She says the University of Michigan Press unexpectedly approached her and asked if she’d like to write a book on the history of the glass industry. “The Glass City: Toledo and The Industry That Built It” was published in 2014. “It was like this gift from above, dropping on your desk; I was really fortunate to have that opportunity,” says Floyd, who also has written, “Toledo: The 19th Century” (2004); Toledo:  The 20th Century (2005); “Legendary Locals of Toledo” (2016); and “University of Toledo” (2017).

Before her retirement in 2017, the Canaday Center acquired a large collection of historical government documents from the city. Among them were the first charter of the city and the first city council minutes, which dated back to Toledo’s founding in 1837. “These are nationally important research collections. To be able to have them there and to attract researchers who use these materials is something I’m proud of, and I’m proud that the University is able to provide a research center that has that kind of reputation,” says Floyd.

Floyd also led the new initiative to build a disability history archive, which helped identify the little-known history of people with disabilities and the services in Toledo that assisted them. Floyd became intrigued with a story of a young boy born in North Toledo in 1900. She says she kept finding threads of his story throughout the archives. The boy was profoundly disabled, having been born with no arms or legs. He was unable to speak or attend school, but eventually that changed when a group of public health nurses sought help for him through the local Rotary Club. That organization, known for its philanthropy for disabled individuals, helped pay for surgeries and artificial limbs for the boy, who attended school and graduated from the eighth grade.

“He inspired a whole national movement to help children with disabilities,” says Floyd.

Barbara Floyd speaks at a book event in which she discusses the city of Toledo’s glass industry history.

“I think my whole way of looking at history has evolved in the past five years because despite all of the attention I paid to all of the great men of Toledo — like Edward Drummond Libbey and Michael Owens — I think I’ve come to see the history of Toledo as really the story of everybody. How the lives of individuals sort of weave together to create the story of the city. I’ve come to try to find these stories of individuals who are unknown, but who did amazing things in small ways that had tremendous impact,” she says.

Floyd stays connected to Toledo’s history through a class she teaches at UT on that very subject. She’s also thinking about future topics for books. “The issue of water, clean water, safe water and the influence that the St. Lawrence Seaway had on the development of Toledo and the Port of Toledo. I’d kind of like to take a look at that.”

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