Missing Phi Beta Kappa Society Charter Found in Murkland Basement

Missing Phi Beta Kappa Society Charter Found in Murkland Basement

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A copy of the Phi Beta Kappa charter after it has been partially flattened. Photo: Bill Ross. 

When the heating system in Murkland Hall failed in late January causing water damage to various parts of the building, it’s likely there wasn’t much thought given to the upside. Turns out there was one, though.

Cleanup efforts uncovered the original charter of UNH’s Phi Beta Kappa Society, issued in December 1952. Phi Beta Kappa is the oldest national honor society in the country, founded at the College of William & Mary in 1776. Several years ago, Linda Johnson, associate professor and government information librarian, was doing research on the history of the university’s chapter and learned the charter was missing.  

“I knew it existed but couldn’t find it. There were minutes from a meeting, June 4, 1953, that said the charter was to go in a bookcase in Murkland but it wasn’t there,” Johnson says.  

She first learned of the charter while on sabbatical in 2010 when she was compiling Phi Beta Kappa’s UNH history. Then she tried to located it and couldn’t. She asked around. No one seemed to know where it was. Poring through old meeting minutes let her know where it was supposed to be. 

And then, after Murkland flooded last month, someone found it. The charter was in the basement, stored in a box amid other items.  

“Oh, my goodness, I was calling people up, I was so excited,” Johnson says. “It was great news.” 

The vellum document is now in the hands of professor Bill Ross, head of the Milne Special Collections and Archives, who will try to reverse some of the damage done to the 61-year-old record. Made from split animal hides, vellum is considered to be a finer quality form of parchment paper and has been used for centuries for important legal documents.  

“Vellum is very brittle. Some schools still use it to print their diplomas on but the problem is, it’s extremely hygroscopic—it takes on water and dries out much faster than paper,” says Ross, who is going to put the document in a humidification chamber to see if will help relax the vellum. “We’ll see if we can get it to flatten out, and then we’ll put it in a new, archival frame and display it somewhere away from the sunlight.”  

Once a year, the charter will be on display during the new members’ inductions ceremony. Johnson is hopeful the document will be ready before May, when the next initiation takes place. 

“The charter is an important part of the Phi Beta Kappa history,” Ross says. “It’s an important part of the institutional memory of UNH.”

UNH Phi Beta Kappa members now include individuals from UNH Manchester and the UNH School of Law.