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16 July 1999

Vol. III, No. 2

Feature Article

Research center stockpiling

Mountains of millennial memorabilia

By Hope Green

At first glance, it would seem that the ephemera piled on tables and adorning the walls of the University's Center for Millennial Studies (CMS) had been gathered merely for the amusement of its staff.

"Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse Photographed in Arizona -- Just Days Ago!" trumpets a Weekly World News headline. "Come the Rapture, can I have your car?" quips a bumper sticker.

In fact, says CMS Executive Administrator David Kessler, such materials will be valuable fodder to future historians. Along with these more sensational artifacts of the current millennial fever, the center is building up an assortment of related books, manuscripts, videos, posters, press clippings, cartoons, and letters through a new associate archivist program, which the center is conducting in consultation with the Library of Congress.

Anyone donating items relating to millennial events or beliefs receives a certificate of recognition from CMS (www.mille.org), a research center based at 704 Commonwealth Ave. that collaborates with associate scholars around the world. The extent of the CMS affiliation with the Library of Congress is still being worked out, Kessler says, but in any case, CMS plans to send the library a list of all its materials, footnoted with the names of those who submitted them.

David Kessler, executive administrator of the Center for Millennial Studies. Photo by Vernon Doucette

According to Richard Landes, CMS cofounder and director and CAS associate professor of history, there is little documentation of cultural responses to round-number dates of the past, such as the year 1000. But as mail arrives each day from academics and the public at large, CMS is determined to create a comprehensive time capsule that will help future researchers understand what makes people tick as our millennial calendar turns.

Besides such religious periodicals as Midnight Call, Charisma, and Perhaps Today, the collection includes the magazine Y2K News and the Utne Reader Citizens Action Guidebook, a Y2K preparedness manual. "Whether it's true or not, the vocabulary of Y2K is very similar to the vocabulary of a religious ministry preaching the end of the world," notes Kessler. Y2K refers to the information systems bug many technology experts believe will confuse computers into thinking it is the year 1900 on January 1, 2000 -- possibly disrupting financial services, food distribution, and utilities on a massive scale if computers are not properly reprogrammed in advance.

"Y2K has provided a gateway to apocalyptic belief," Kessler says. "Its foundation is so mundane, so stupid, and so niggling -- just two digits! And because it's so mundane, mainstream culture has accepted it as a real issue."

For some people, secular warnings of a Y2K technology crisis and religious prophecies of doom are directly related. "We have videos," he says, "that talk about Y2K in the same breath as they talk about the mark of the beast."

Kessler is quick to note that "crazy" is not in the CMS vocabulary. "We're not here to disparage what people say, or approve of it," he explains. "We're here to talk about what it means to have these things going on in society. To date, everybody who ever said the world was going to end has been wrong. But that doesn't mean they haven't had an incredible impact on history. We're trying to understand the millennial dynamic, the millennial impulse -- why people believe this stuff and why they keep coming back to it."