The Yearbook Question

By Emilie Munson

In a meeting on December 1, the fate of a 145-year-old historical document was decided: the College’s yearbook.

The first edition of the Kaleidoscope was produced in 1873. Since that time, the yearbook has undergone a variety of changes as print and digital technology have evolved and student interest in the publication has waned and waxed.

This year, prompted by discussions on how little students know about the yearbook and how few students want to participate in making in, the SGA sent out a survey to evaluate current student opinion towards the Kaleidoscope. For years, the Kaleidoscope has been one of the top recipients of SGA funding – yet there has been little conversation about whether the yearbook merits the thousands of dollars it is allocated annually.
After gathering their results, SGA representatives met this week with staff who help create the yearbook and administrators to address their survey findings, as well as budget and production concerns. At the forefront of everyone’s minds: do students continue to value the yearbook in today’s age of social media?


According to alumnus and historian David Stameshkin, “Before the first Kaleidoscope was printed, students paid for a special edition of the annual catalogue, which had extra pages listing student groups and their members; but the yearbook has been published nearly every year since its first issue in 1865.”

The first Kaleidoscopes little resembled today’s typical yearbooks: they were small pamphlets with pages for student groups and societies, listing the leadership and members of those groups. The name and year of each student at the College appeared in the Kaleidoscope, but fewer than 100 students attended the College each year in the 19th century. There were no photographs — cameras were not widely accessible at this time.
The first thirty years of the Kaleidoscope’s production were rocky. The Kaleidoscope was produced each year as a pamphlet from 1873 to 1881, but then production stopped. The publication returned, now in bound book form, in 1894.

In 1900, the yearbook briefly assumed a new name, The Laurea, evidently in an attempt to transform itself into a publication with staying power. The yearbook continued as The Laurea in 1901 but after that year, yearbook production again halted.

In 1909, yearbook production resumed again under the old name of the Kaleidoscope. Since 1909, the Kaleidoscope has been created and printed every year, excepting only one: in 1920, World War One prohibited yearbook production and, in general, interrupted campus life as male students left the College to go to war.

In the early years of the Kaleidoscope, the book was created by a group of about three students each year. All the pages were handwritten and then mailed to a printing press in Rutland, Vermont. Later, the book was typed and then sent away for printing. The speed of the typewriter allowed the yearbook to grow and with it the yearbook staff: in the 1920s, a group of around 16 students were responsible for production. Into the late 20th century, creating the yearbook was a student activity, operating like other student organizations today.

The Yearbook Today

In recent years, the Kaleidoscope has been created by a group of two to three unpaid students in collaboration with the Office of Communications. While certain elements of the yearbook are staples from year to year—such as senior portraits and photos and records from athletic teams and student organizations—these students have significant editorial power in deciding what goes into the book.

Editor-in-chief of Middlebury Magazine Matt Jennings serves as faculty advisor for the Kaleidoscope. He teaches yearbook student editors “best practices” and helps them make important editorial decisions.

Unlike at schools such as Dartmouth College where the yearbook staff is mostly composed of photographers, the Kaleidoscope staff largely obtains content from other sources such as Athletic Communications, the Study Abroad Office and Jostens, who takes senior portraits. From September through the winter, the yearbook editors devote themselves to gathering photos and other materials to fill the book.

In the spring, after collecting 90 percent of their content, lay out begins and editors collaborate with the staff of Jostens, a company that sells class rings, class tags and graduation apparel in addition to producing yearbooks. In mid to late summer, the Kaleidoscope is in production with Jostens and editors review proofs of the book. Once approved, it is printed in early fall and mailed free of charge to that year’s graduates. About 800 copies are printed each year.

As the Kaleidoscope contains no commercial advertising, funding for the yearbook comes almost exclusively from the SGA budget. The cost of production, printing and shipping the yearbook totals about $42,500 each year, or four percent of the entire SGA budget. This entire sum is paid to Jostens each year.

Uses of the Yearbook

The Kaleidoscope has many other uses outside of being a nostalgic token for graduates. For alumni planning their reunions, the Kaleidoscope is instrumental. The book helps them and the Alumni Office develop programming and, in particular, create the class books distributed at the 25th and 50th reunions. In addition, Middlebury Magazine regularly uses the Kaleidoscope for its Then & Now section.

One of the most important uses of the Kaleidoscope is as a historical document recording the people, events and ideas of a year. For the archivists in Special Collections, the yearbook is an invaluable way to learn about the College’s past.

“We refer to them all the time,” Director of Special Collections Rebekah Irwin said. “It’s often a second point of research to understand what [was] happening at the College.”

Irwin says the yearbook is priceless for learning about student life at the College, the College’s important figures such as Common’s heads and the history of students of color. Classes, in particular history courses, often visit Special Collections to examine the Kaleidoscope as well as other historical documents.

The SGA Survey

In a survey emailed out on October 28, the SGA attempted to gauge student opinion on the Kaleidoscope. The survey had 682 respondents who were relatively well distributed across the class years.

The survey found that 86.2 percent of respondents did not know that all graduating seniors are mailed a copy of the Kaleidoscope for free.
Student responses were mixed as to whether the yearbook was a good use of the student activities fee. Only one third of students believed it was; the majority of surveyed students thought otherwise. Twenty-nine percent of students said that the money should be allocated to student organizations and on campus activities, instead. Another 20 percent of students said a cheaper alternative should be found. Eighteen percent of students had no preference.

Despite the generally lukewarm support for the Kaleidoscope, 19 percent of respondents indicated that they would be interested in a paid position to help produce the yearbooks.

Chair of the Finance Committee Aaron de Toledo ’16, who has been involved in discussions about the yearbook since last summer, explained the value of the survey results to the SGA.

“At the end of the day, the SGA and specifically the Finance Committee, we are an allocation body that is allocating money based on student activities and student interest,” said de Toledo. “This is a big allocation of money that we want to know how students feel about it. [The survey] provided some valuable insight there.”

Changes This Year

Difficulties producing last year’s Kaleidoscope have resulted in changes in the production of the yearbook and even discussions in its general value.
During the 2014-15 academic year, the student editor of the Kaleidoscope abandoned the job before the finishing the yearbook. Completion of the yearbook fell to Jennings, along with the staff at Jostens. The 2015 yearbook, typically distributed in early fall, has yet to mailed to graduated seniors.

This episode revealed the folly of the Kaleidoscope relying on unpaid students to produce the yearbook. In order to ensure the commitment of this year’s student editors, Vice President of Marketing and Communications Bill Burger approved a new budget so student editors of the Kaleidoscope will be paid by the College as student employees.

“By making it a paid position, the hope was that someone would really commit to it and that ultimately you might get a better product,” said Burger.
Funding for these paid positions, which are B and C level positions on the student employment wage scale, is coming partially from the Office of Communications and partially from the SGA operating budget. Students are currently being interviewed for the position of this year’s editor-in-chief of the Kaleidoscope.

The SGA hopes these paid positions will allow student involvement in the yearbook to grow so that the Kaleidoscope is no longer being made by one person but by a passionate staff.

More changes to the Kaleidoscope may be in store as a result of the Dec. 1 meeting. President of the SGA Ilana Gratch ’16 said one of the biggest takeaways of the meeting for her was learning that the cost of producing the yearbook, previously perceived to be “fixed”, is actually flexible. Switching from hardcover to soft-cover, scaling down the yearbook and using paper of less quality are all possibilities that could help reduce the price of the Kaleidoscope.

De Toledo added that changes made this year are not necessarily permanent but are aimed at building a better future product.
“We’re not looking for a year long solution; we’re looking for a solution that will build quality and if we have a smaller scaled down product this year, it might be easier to build a quality product,” de Toledo said. “Then the next year, scale up a little bit and continue scaling up until the yearbook is where it has been in the past.”

The Future of the Yearbook

Some administrators attribute students’ lack of interest in the Kaleidoscope is the fact that a yearbook gains its value over time.
“Understandably, students today or very recent graduates don’t see a very great value in it and I understand why that’s the case,” Burger said. “It’s not nostalgia for them; it’s today.”

Still, the rise of social media and specifically Facebook makes some wonder if the need for a yearbook is obsolete. Others counter with worries about the feasibility of saving social media in the same way that the yearbook can be preserved.

“We’ve been a little frustrated in our efforts to preserve social media,” Irwin said, “because we can only essentially preserve a tiny slice of it. I am worried.”

Mikaela Taylor ’15, a post-graduate fellow in Special Collections, who along with the rest of the Class of 2015 has yet to receive her yearbook, said, “A book is something you will always be able interact with no matter what software you are using.”

Perhaps, instead of simply eliminating the Kaleidoscope, the publication should be updated to reflect today’s changing world. Many schools, according to Burger, are struggling with the same questions as the College: how can the yearbook be made relevant to the present generation?
“In the age of social media, there is a great need for innovation and for [the Kaleidoscope] to be really, really good,” Burger said. “Because the competition is so much greater, in effect, if it doesn’t keep evolving and it doesn’t keep getting better, I think it’s going to look more and more stale.”

“I’d love to see the student body come up with some creative solutions to this problem before the SGA completely eliminates the yearbook,” said Associate Dean of Students J.J. Boggs, who oversees the yearbook as one of many student organizations.

Jennings thinks the Kaleidoscope still has immense potential.

“I feel like we’ve never really gotten off the ground with what the yearbook could be,” Jennings said.

He envisions the Kaleidoscope as a memento that editorializes on the past year and provides an additional outlet for the College’s talented, burgeoning photographers.

It is this act of ‘editorializing’ that Irwin believes is most important about the yearbook.

“Its an important task to reflect on your experience and choose the pictures and the text that capture your years as a student. And most of us never do that,” Irwin said. “And in some ways, the yearbook asks a group of students to edit and reflect on their time at Middlebury … without asking a group of students to do that, then it [their four years] just passes by as a moment not reflected on.”

Some wonder what it says about the College’s community that the Kaleidoscope is less valued today than by previous generations.

“I think the fact that our community has not produced this document says a little more than just, ‘There aren’t three students doing it,’” Taylor said. “We aren’t really a cohesive community any more and we don’t really have a strong voice, a centralized voice on campus that says, ‘This is who we are.’ (…) I think it’s a lot more complex than: ‘Do you want a yearbook for your shelf?’”

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