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Building a future with an eye toward the past: Architecture student gets his hands on history in Special Collections

Vito Scocozzo examines oversized 1886 Scranton, Pa. atlas

In his first week on the job in Lehigh’s Special Collections, Vito Scocozzo ‘19, found himself face to face with a well-worn Edgar Allen Poe book from 1845. His task? To choose an image and write a blog post for upcoming Halloween. “I thought, ‘This is crazy. I didn’t think I’d get to see these old books’,” he said. A work study student since his freshman year, the senior architecture major is gaining hands-on experience, combing through and organizing archives of Lehigh history, digitizing works from 18th and 19th century authors, and helping design and curate exhibitions for display at Linderman Library.

Vito credits his work in Special Collections with helping reshape his career path toward historic preservation. The Scranton, Pa. native originally studied engineering at Lehigh, but realized as a sophomore it wasn’t for him. A lingering curiosity about his roommate’s architecture homework led him to take a process of architecture class and he was hooked. He switched majors by winter that year.

“As I progressed through architecture I found a passion for historic preservation and restoration, so being able to work on the conservation of documents while I'm working towards doing it for buildings has been a cool experience and gives me another tool under my belt for grad school, and even moving into the real world.”

On exhibit: piecing together history

Over the past year, Socozzo worked with Archives and Special Collections Librarian Ilhan Citak and Digital Archivist Alex Japha to conceptualize and develop an exhibition about the University Center. The 1868 building, formerly known as Packer Hall, is currently undergoing a $70M renovation and expansion.

“They gave me the freedom to figure out how I’m going to fill [the exhibit cases]. I went through everything, organized it by what kind of document it was, what kind of relevance it had, and came to them with a plan for the layout and what to include,“ Scocozzo said.

“Vito was trusted with putting together this exhibit because of his extensive experience with Special Collections materials and the projects that he has collaborated on over the past three years. Being able to independently select material that was both relevant and able to tell an engaging story with a limited amount of space was a challenging assignment. Vito’s attention to detail and eye for architectural design even helped to identify a previously overlooked section of Packer Hall that only existed for a brief span of time,” Japha remarked.

The digital connection

Along with Lois Black, Curator of Special Collections, Citak orients Vito to his work and assigns him various projects, working with rare and valuable materials in Lehigh’s extensive collections. In addition to his work on the UC exhibit, Scocozzo has scanned nearly 200 Lehigh graduate theses, organized hundreds of speeches from Lee Iacocca ‘45, and helped curate exhibits for student publications like Lehigh Bachelor, and currently, The Brown and White, which celebrates its 125th anniversary this year.

“I’ve scanned entire novels and photoshopped every single page and stitched them together,” Scocozzo said. He admits that digitizing archival materials comes with its own sort of work hazard -- distraction by fascination. “Every now and then I’d find one, reading through as I’m trying to scan it, and they’re really fascinating to look at and see, especially because it’s related to what I want to do with my career.”

A bit of home comes to Lehigh

His work also includes the digitization of an oversized 1886 Scranton, Pa. atlas that came into the collection last year. Scocozzo asked Citak if he could show the atlas to his father, a Scranton firefighter, who Vito says knows the city layout “like the back of his hand.” While reviewing the atlas with him on a recent campus visit, they noticed a road that doesn’t exist now and a whole neighborhood that’s now an empty field. “We even found an error where it showed an empty plot of land where fire headquarters are located, even though it was built five years prior to the atlas,” he said.

“Over the years, Vito demonstrated such talent and confidence in his assignments in Special Collections that he was chosen to be a co-presenter on a special program to host the Friends of the Scranton Public Library,” Citak observed. “Vito gave a presentation to the guests by using the atlas that he had scanned and processed, and answered the questions with pointing out the layout and plot errors with confidence and wit.”

Vito said working for Special Collections developed his curiosity and appreciation for history at his home away from home. “There's so much history on this campus that people don’t realize,” he said. “With the UC project, I’m looking at aerial photos from the 1920s and 1940s, seeing one photo [where] Packard Lab isn’t even there.” To see what campus was like before it was built, and that the UC was a chapel and a museum in its early years was “bizarre.”

Looking ahead

With grad school in his sights, Scocozzo has his eye on Clemson University’s joint graduate program for historic preservation with the College of Charleston, SC, located in a city with one of the country’s strictest preservation laws. “They have a very hands on program,” he said. Having experienced that in the field and in his classes, he says “I want that hands on experience.”

After graduate school, Scocozzo hopes to work for either the National Park Service or for the Unesco World Heritage sites.