Why Archives Matter

Public fascination with archives continues to run high.

Every year this time, the Man Booker Award announces its list of nominees for this prestigious award for the best work of fiction in English from any country. This year’s Booker long list contains two novels that use archives not only as an essential plot device and metaphor, but also as a point of reference in the title.

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (Penguin Random House, 2019) is the story of a mother and father who are archivists of a sort, and their children, on a road trip across the U.S. collecting and recording as they travel. Each member of this family has at least one archival box that they fill with sound recordings, lists, memoirs, oral histories, transcriptions, maps, drawings, and photographs. As they make their way in their combined and individual journeys, their personal archives grow and merge with other primary materials in ways that suggest how profoundly each of us is linked to and extend the permanent public record. Luiselli writes, “I suppose an archive gives you a kind of valley in which your thoughts can bounce back to you, transformed.”

In The Testaments (Penguin Random House, 2019), Margaret Atwood revisits the dystopian theocracy of Gilead first created in her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale. The Testaments is comprised of various fictional archival transcriptions that (spoiler alert!) weave an account of the unraveling of Gilead. And not only do the personal histories that are the testaments make up the narrative of the novel, truths preserved in the “Bloodlines,” or archival history of Gilead, serve to alert the world to the corruption of that culture and lead to its downfall.

Atwood’s admiration for the power of archives is tempered by recognition of how easily history can be erased by disappearing the permanent record, especially in the era of digital preservation. Speaking from a hypothetical year 2197, she refers to, “The Digital Black Hole of the twenty-first century that caused so much information to vanish due to the rapid decay of stored data–coupled with the sabotage of a large number of server farms and libraries. . .”

Why this sudden popularity and awareness of the power of archives? I would suggest that the interest springs from a collective impulse and imperative to establish and preserve a permanent and indelible record. As we find ourselves in uncertain times when truth itself seems to become more subjective each day and once-authoritative sources of information are increasingly called into doubt, primary source materials are valued now more than ever. Many people today recognize that the answer to the question — posed in perhaps a year or ten or two hundred — “What really happened?” will depend on how well we preserve and protect the records of government and our public agencies today.

The Texas State Library and Archives Commission was founded by the State of Texas in 1909 (though there has been an official state library and archive since the beginning of statehood) and charged with preserving the records of the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of Texas government. TSLAC takes seriously the charge to gather, preserve, protect, and make available the permanent record of the State of Texas now and for future generations.

October is Archives Month, a great time to learn more about rich world of archives and archival work. To find out more about the exciting work being done by our TSLAC archivists, visit our blog, Out of the Stacks at https://www.tsl.texas.gov/outofthestacks/

Texas Great Read 2019

Once again this year, our Texas Center for the Book has selected an outstanding book to be featured as the 2019 Texas Great Read. This year’s Texas Great Read is What Do You Do With a Voice Like That: The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan by Chris Barton, illustrated by Ekua Holmes (Simon and Schuster, 2018).

This beautifully told and illustrated book tells the story of the legendary Barbara Jordan, who, in 1966, became the first African-American woman ever elected to the Texas legislature and, in 1972, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Chris Barton and Ekua Holmes relate the inspiring story of this woman of courage and determination, one of the great public figures of the 20th Century, in a way that appeals to all ages.

Texas Center for the Book Coordinator Rebekah Manley greets visitors at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, Saturday, August 31.

Each year, the Texas Center for the Book selects a Great Read to represent Texas at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC. Last weekend, Center Coordinator Rebekah Manley and TSLAC Communications Officer Susan Floyd traveled Washington to greet the public and share information about TSLAC programs and Texas books, authors, and illustrators.

The Texas Center for the Book encourages a love of books, reading, literacy, and libraries for all Texans and highlights the role of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission as a source of the information that Texans of all ages and in all parts of the state need to live informed and productive lives. As an example, for over 100 years, researchers and historians have used the holdings of the Texas Archives to find information on Texas leaders and legislators such as Barbara Jordan. You can listen to Barbara Jordan speaking in this 1969 clip from the Texas Senate Recordings digitized and available on the TSLAC site.

Welcoming Sarah Swanson

Sarah I. Swanson, TSLAC General Counsel

We are happy to welcome to the TSLAC team our new General Counsel, Sarah I. Swanson. Sarah comes to TSLAC with an impressive track record of service to state agencies, most recently at the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles where she served as the acting general counsel.

The position of General Counsel for TSLAC was approved and funded by the Legislature during the session that just ended in May. TSLAC urged the addition of the position specifically to assist with Public Information Act (PIA) requests and agency contracts. Because TSLAC holds the archives of the state of Texas, PIA requests have been a complex challenge for the agency and was the subject of several recommendations in the TSLAC sunset review. Similarly, because of our e-resource contracts for TexShare and TexQuest, as well as many agreements with other agencies for records storage and local governments for competitive grants, TSLAC contracts are complicated. Sarah will be helping the agency develop processes to more effectively manage both PIA requests and contracts.

Sarah is also joining the agency at a moment when other issues are at play. Changes in the last session will require attention to agency property, the management of legislative records, and other matters. Sarah’s expertise in state government work will ensure that TSLAC continues to effectively serve the state and our clients within all legal and ethical requirements.

In other news, TSLAC has signed a contract renewal with E-Rate Central to continue to assist public libraries across Texas in completing their applications for E-Rate, the federal broadband discount. In the 2017 session, the Legislature provided TSLAC with $1,000,000 for the 2018-2019 biennium to assist libraries in securing broadband Internet connections. Over the last two years, and with the support of E-Rate Central, TSLAC’s Libraries Connecting Texas project has helped 145 community libraries increase their internet speeds by an average of over 900%. The last Legislature allowed TSLAC to carry forward over $400,000 in unused funds to continue this important work during the 2020-2021 biennium.