Student Groups Reconstruct Campus Traditions, Revive Institutional Memory


Although institutional memory is something that constantly adapts to adhere to the demands of the times, what happens when it disappears or, as has recently been the case, is greatly impeded by something like the pandemic?

“It’s really sad to think about all of the things that were lost, but I do think this year has been really great,” College third-year Remy Gajewski said. “People have a lot of drive and energy to try and bring things back. It felt impossible to try and get anything done, but now it feels more and more possible to try to get things started.”

Gajewski has been a part of SWAP book co-op since 2019. SWAP, founded in 2013 by a group of students including Jackson Kusiak, OC ’15, and Pablo Cerdera, OC ’15, was inspired by an ExCo called Co-Ops and Cooperation. SWAP encourages students to trade used books or exchange their labor for whatever the organization’s shelves hold, with a particular focus on keeping textbooks free and accessible for students.

“I think personally used books are really nice, especially for classes, because someone’s already annotated them or written notes — it’s very useful,” Gajewski said. “And, it reduces a lot of waste.”

When Gajewski returned to Oberlin in fall of 2021 after taking a year off during the pandemic, they were the only returning member with officership. The following semester, SWAP encountered issues with water damage to much of its stock but was still able to officially reopen in the fall of 2022 until the mold remediation process began in Tank Hall in the beginning of December.

“We kept having to update on our Instagram like, ‘next week we’ll be open, next week we’ll be open’ and there kept being more issues with [the building],” Gajewski said. “It’s like once they opened up the rabbit hole of all of the things that needed to get done to Tank as a building, it never stopped.”

Despite the setbacks, Gajewski looks forward to the future of SWAP.

 “I think SWAP is an interesting experiment on institutional memory where we’re working on all of the blueprint given to us, but not with anyone who remembers how it worked,” Gajewski said. “SWAP definitely looks very different now, but at the same time, we’re doing the same kind of things. We’re just trying to take all of the ways it was run before and adjust for a very different scenario.”

Since the second half of the 20th century, Harkness House has offered the Harkness Nightclub, more recently known as Hark After Dark. The tradition was not, in fact, impacted by the pandemic, rather having a coincidental revival around the same time as institutions like SWAP and Bike Co-op. 

College second-year Olivia Wohlgemuth, a member of the Harkness co-op, first learned about the former nightclub when she put out a call last year for alumni to write love letters to their co-ops. One woman’s response was enough to jump-start the idea of bringing back the Harkness Nightclub.

“Knowing that decades later, the Harkness Nightclub is something she still remembers and can find pictures from speaks a lot to its importance and that it’s not just a frivolous party scene, but where a lot of social experience and community are built,” Wohlgemuth said. “So that’s really encouraging as to why I and other people want to spend their time and energy on bringing something like that back.”

The first Hark After Dark event was a small and intimate jazz-themed lounge party, with covers of pop songs and a small lamp set upon the piano that people were invited to play. Harkness Nightclub events were themed throughout the ’70s and ’80s, with concepts ranging from the ’20s to cavemen courtships. For Wohlgemuth, it was important to keep this tradition flourishing, especially in the spring with more people back on campus.

“I think for a lot of college students — this might sound kind of artificial — but I think nightlife is really important when you’re a full-time student,” she said. “Part of the reason that OSCA as an institution has always been so important to Oberlin is because it creates those community spaces and social spaces that students want and need. Out of the pandemic, people are craving places and things that are reliably fun, where they know that they’re going to go there and be able to see their friends and have a good time and be around people in an environment that also feels safe and interesting. It seems like campus nightlife is not what it was, but bringing [Harkness Nightclub] back, even from that long ago, fills a space that needed to be filled.”

While Harkness Nightclub fizzled out for several years and only recently reemerged on campus this past Winter Term, the Bike Co-op remained functioning out of the Keep Cottage basement, though it did lose some traditions like the Bike Derby hosted in Hark Bowl and the Tour de Franzia, which involved a bike race around Oberlin during commencement week.

“We basically lost two years’ worth of membership [because of the pandemic] — two years worth of fresh, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed first-years,” College fourth-year and Bike Co-op President Zola Haber said. “People didn’t know we existed [or] people thought we shut down. [Plus], while I’m president, I don’t actually know that much about fixing bikes. I ended up in the position because I was willing to take on the work and I’m one of the few people who was in Bike Co-op before COVID.”

While the Keep Cottage basement began undergoing mold remediation in the fall semester, the mold has only worsened after the dehumidifiers being used in the process were moved to Tank Hall after its pipes broke during Winter Term.

“I was really hoping that we would be able to have access to Bike Co-op again during Winter Term and get a jump-start on rentals and everything,” Haber said. “I would love to say that I have some grand idea for how [Bike Co-op] is going to be totally changed. … We’ll send out announcements when we reopen. When I put up posters about [Bike Co-op] existing, the number one thing people ask me about is rentals, which sometimes is a little disheartening, because, yes, you want to use the rentals and that’s totally understandable, but also we do need to run and wouldn’t it be great if you joined us?”