Safeguarding Texas historical treasures

The Travis letter in its specially designed case on display in the lobby of the Lorenzo de Zavala State Archives and Library Building.

The Travis letter in its specially designed case on display in the lobby of the Lorenzo de Zavala State Archives and Library Building.

Today is a special day at TSLAC and for the state of Texas. Today marks the first day of the exhibit of the “Victory or Death” letter, written by Col. William Barret Travis from the Alamo on February 24, 1836. In that letter, Travis appealed to his fellow Texans for the reinforcements needed to withstand the vastly overpowering Mexican army. “I call on you,” Travis wrote, “in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & of every thing dear to the American character, to come to our aid.” As history attests, aid did not arrive and the 150 defenders of the Alamo perished on March 6.

This iconic relic of this pivotal historical event has been in the custody of the state archives since 1893 when it was first purchased by the state for $85 from a descendant of Col. Travis. The letter was first owned by our precursor agency, the Department of Agriculture, Insurance, Statistics and History, then later, by the modern state library and archives agency formed by statute in 1909. Over those 122 years, the document has been safeguarded and protected along with many thousands of other documents and artifacts of Texas history, for the enjoyment of future generations of Texans in perpetuity.

The public has a rare opportunity to see the Travis letter during these “13 days of glory” today through March 6, after which it will go back into its archival storage for at least another two years. Why is it displayed so rarely? The item is very fragile and like any historical document, it is subject to light damage. Sustained exposure to ultraviolet light even in low levels can damage the letter. That is why the letter is displayed now in a special case purchased specifically to protect this and other precious documents while being displayed to the public. The case is climate controlled with glass that blocks damaging light from outside while providing safe lighting within.

The care provided by our staff of professional archivists is critical to safeguarding this and other treasures of our collection. In 2012, the Travis letter travelled to San Antonio for display at the Alamo. While that journey was extremely popular and a great opportunity for many people to see the document in its original historical setting, our conservation team documented slight but discernible damage from light exposure resulting from its trip to San Antonio.

We take our custodianship of the Travis letter as well as every other item in our care extremely seriously and are committed to applying the professional expertise of our staff and the highest standards of archival preservation to protecting and preserving these documents so that every future generation of Texan will be able to read, study, and appreciate the historical record of Texas.

Visiting with the SBOE about school library standards

Today, Library Development and Networking Director Deborah Littrell and I attended a meeting of the State Board of Education subcommittee on instruction to introduce the topic of revising the School Library Standards. The current standards were last updated in 2005. As we told the Board members, much has changed since 2005, including changes in the testing process in TEA (from TAKS to STAAR), shifts in technology and the rise of digital content, provisions in HB5, and more.

We told the committee that there were decades of research that confirm that a strong school library will have a demonstrated positive impact on student achievement. We shared an infographic from the American Association of School Librarians that cites this research ( And we shared a great editorial from the current issue of the Texas Library Journal on “The Importance of School Libraries” by Nicole Cruz, lead librarian at the Sharyland ISD.

The committee seemed impressed and asked good question. Board member Tom Maynard questioned us on the new roles of libraries of all types and we responded with comments about libraries as learning centers and places of civic engagement. We were also asked what the practical impact of the standards were, considering that they are voluntary. We responded that they serve as a target for excellence in school library services for both library staffs as well as principals, superintendents and boards across the state. While little comprehensive data exists to measure the impact, we have ample anecdotal information that 20 years of the standards have made a difference for school libraries in districts of all sizes across the state.

We look forward to working with the SBOE to move ahead to form a committee to revise the school standards and it is our hope that we can move along a timeline to have new standards in place by Spring of 2016. We applaud the outstanding job that school librarians do for their students and communities statewide and we look forward to consulting with them in the creation of the new standards.

Getting by with a little help from our friends

Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson with the 1852 budget from the TSLAC archives.

Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson with the 1852 budget from the TSLAC archives.

Yesterday we had the pleasure of presenting our 2016-2017 Legislative Appropriations Request to the Senate Finance Committee chaired by Senator Jane Nelson. Before starting our testimony, we shared with the Committee a document from our archival collection. The item we took was a page from the Senate budget bill from the fourth Texas Legislature of 1852. I took the opportunity to make the point that this is a piece of history preserved for generations because of the vision and leadership of legislators over 100 years ago and that we are seeking the same protection and preservation now for documents in electronic format for our proposed Texas Digital Archive. The senators seemed to enjoy seeing the document.

In addition to resources to establish the Texas Digital Archive, we are also asking for expansion of TexShare and TexQuest databases, funds for market salary adjustments for our staff, approval and funding for two additional government information analysts to assist state and local government in records management and preservation, funding to implement the CAPPS financial system in the agency, and resources to train and assist local libraries in implementing strategies to support workforce and economic development in their communities.

But what made yesterday a spectacular day for us was the outpouring of support the committee heard for our programs from a wide range of individuals. We had a number of very eloquent librarians present speaking about the importance of the TexShare and TexQuest databases to their customers and the cost-savings that they achieve with those resources. We had private citizens speaking about the importance of establishing the Texas Digital Archive to safeguard digital records of enduring value. We had Jim Allison from the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas speaking in favor of the need for government information analysts to assist local government in the preservation of records. We had Darrell Newsome, City Manager of Wolfforth, speaking about the importance of libraries in support of workforce in his community. And one speaker actually drew a round of applause: Kyle Whipple, a student from the Chairwoman’s home town of Flower Mound, who spoke of how he uses the TexShare/TexQuest resources to prep for debating tournaments. (Kyle mentioned that he intended to go into a career in politics–no one doubted that and Chairwoman Nelson asked that he please wait a few years.)

It was an outstanding and affirming day for our agency and the cause of libraries and archives in the Texas Legislature. We appreciated the attention paid by the committee. One senator told us as he left the room, “you changed minds here today.”

I want to thank the following individuals for their testimony yesterday: James Allison, Chris Custer, Sharon Gullett, Traci Jenson, Jim Johnson, Donna Kearley, Anne Keene, Jennifer LaBoon, Leah Mann, Darrell Newsome, Danielle Plummer, Jeanne Standley, Robin Stout, and Kyle Whipple. We greatly appreciate your support.