Unwrapping the Archives

When most people think of archives, the first thing that comes to mind is Indiana Jones swinging on vines and storing artifacts in giant rooms. While that is an interesting popular image, the archives and archivists here at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC) are the protectors of documented history. The State Archives house some of the most important records of Texas history within its stacks. TSLAC is also a research hub for many historians writing books concerning famous, infamous, and lesser known Texas figures, places, and events. There is also a personal angle; for many, the archives are a way to connect with their family history. It is beautiful to watch researchers walk into the archives room not knowing what they will find and walk out with a sense of connection to their past. The archivists at TSLAC are typically behind the scenes, doing the hard work that makes all the magic above possible.

We decided to ask one of TSLAC’s own archivists, Anna Reznik, to unwrap the gift that is the State Archives by answering various questions about what there is to love in the archives, the magic that goes on behind the scenes, and much more. Enjoy this interesting read, and happy holidays!

In your opinion, what is the coolest item in the archives?

What is “cool?” It may also depend on the day and who you ask.

Many may say the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) drawings are pretty interesting and cool. The CCC, a New Deal program, helped to develop state parks across the United States. In Texas, the CCC developed 56 state, national, and local parks and employed over 50,000 Texans from 1933 to 1942. Our collection includes 3,900 drawings, which you can view on Flickr or search by year, architect or park.

Map found at TSLAC
Anyone who has visited Longhorn Cavern State Park knows how cool the cavern is and feels.
Plan Showing General Cavern Development and Cavern Trip Features, 1934-1945 (SP.35.132), Longhorn Cavern State Park, Texas State Parks Board Civilian Conservation Corps drawings. Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

In 2018, Archives and Information Services staff selected our favorite items. One of RMA’s own contributed to the selection. Check out the Archives a la carte: Staff picks online exhibit to learn more about items my colleagues thought were interesting such as the medal dies for the Apollo 11 astronauts and letters from Samuel Morse about his Electro-Magnetic Telegraph.

What is the most unexpected item in the archives?

The serious answer is a packet of gum. Our artifact collection contains a broad range of materials connected to Texas history. Some items are associated with key historical events or prominent Texans. Other materials were made and used during daily life by ordinary Texans. Mint Julep Gum might fit in both categories!

The less serious answer are the lighthearted doodles added to records by government employees. Doodles have been found in a variety of records dating from the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty first century.

Doodles of airplanes found at TSLAC
Doodle of airplanes in the upper right corner of a notepad. The records dated from the 1970s-1980s.

What are the top two or three collections scholars use for research?

Archives have something for everyone and topic! The frequently requested collections can vary; however, several records are popular with multiple types of researchers.

Judicial branch records, such as the Texas Supreme Court records and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals records, are among the heaviest requested records as they highlight key issues affecting Texas and Texans. The Adjutant General’s Department service records are popular with genealogists and researchers interested in the law enforcement Texas  Rangers. The Texas Department on Criminal Justice records are also popular with researchers.

What is the smallest item in the archives?

Among the smallest items in the State Archives are grapeshots from the nineteenth century. These projectiles measure less than an inch in diameter.

Beyond materials in the artifacts collection, photographic slides are among the smallest items found at the State Archives. Photographic slides can be found in a variety of records including the Department of Agriculture photograph collection, Current Event Photographic Documentation Program collection, Commission on Environmental Quality photographs, Tourist Development Agency photographs and audiovisual materials. A portion of the latter has been digitized and is available through the Texas Digital Archive.

Photographic slides found at TSLAC
A handful of the photographic slides in our holdings. These materials typically measure 2” x 2”.

What is the largest collection in the archives?

The Texas Supreme Court records collection measures slightly more than 14,000 cubic ft. The number of documents and pages is several million! We are also in the process of humidifying, flattening, and digitizing the Supreme Court case files. Check back to see newly digitized records.

For scale, the next largest, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals records, only measures about 7,500 cubic ft. Nearly 25,000 appeals to this court are in the State Archives. Among these are two appeals Jack Rubenstein made to the highest criminal court for the state following the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Case file found at TSLAC
Case file #37900, State of Texas v. Jack Rubenstein (aka Jack Ruby), Texas Court of Criminal Appeals centralized court case files. Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

What is the estimated weight of the heaviest book in the archives?

Heavy! This Texas Superintendent of Public Instruction register of disbursements volume takes two people to pull it. We also moved it to a more convenient shelf as education records is a topic of interest. – How heavy does it look?

Book referenced
It is heavier than many of the boxes at the State Archives.

What is the oldest item in the archives?

The State Archives primarily collects records that have enduring value and were created or maintained by Texas government. Majority of our holdings date from the 1835 to present, but we do have materials predating the 1830s.

Our artifacts collection includes fossilized items from the Cretaceous Period (145.5 and 65.5 million years ago).

Fossilized flounder found at TSLAC
Fossilized flounder, Cretaceous Period, Artifacts collection. Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

The Map Collection includes materials dating from the 17th and 18th century. Among the oldest map is Amplissimae Regionis Mississipi Seu Provinciae Ludoviciane, roughly translated as Amplified Region of the Mississippi of the Province of Louisiana.  It is a 1720 reproduction of a 1678 map.

Map found at TSLAC
Map 0401, Amplissimae Regionis Mississipi Seu Provinciae Ludoviciane, 1720, Texas State Archives Map Collection. Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

What is the newest item in the archives?

Minutes and agenda are typically the “newest” item in the archive. Some agencies prefer to transfer a copy of this record series to the State Archive as soon as they are approved. The answer will be out of date by the time you read this post. Some agencies transfer copies in paper form, while others prefer to submit agenda and minutes in electronic form.

What formats do you have in the archives?

Paper is the most prominent format found in the State Archives; however, paper can be diverse. It includes photographic prints, maps, and volumes.

We also have other photographic formats, such as Daguerreotypes, negatives, and photographic slides. In 2014, we highlighted early photographic media in a lobby exhibit.

Different record formats found at TSLAC
In addition to paper, the State Archives preserves state records on a variety of formats. Depicted are a motion picture film reel, punch card, Dictabelt, Digital Audio Tape, microcassette, and 3.5” Floppy Disk.

Our audio formats include the more common types such as audiocassettes and reel-to-reel in addition to lesser known media like Dictabelts and lacquer discs. You can find moving image formats such as VHS, film, multiple types of Beta tapes, and U-matic at the State Archives.

A growing amount of government records are created or used in electronic form. These records may be intermixed with paper or transferred separately. Floppy disks, CDs, and DVDs are the most common, though punch cards and magnetic tapes have been found when we are arranging, describing, and rehousing materials. These tasks, commonly referred to as archival processing, help identify materials of interest.

In the interest of saving space, some state agencies imaged their paper records in microform. For materials deemed archival, the records were transferred to the State Archives in microform such as microfilm and microfiche.

Our artifacts collection consists of 590 three-dimensional objects. These materials can be made of wood, metal, cloth, plastic, and ceramics.

How do you preserve your holdings?

Although everything degrades overtime, the State Archives takes actions to slow this process.

We keep archival materials in a secure space and ensure that the temperature and relative humidity stays stable. Exposure to light, especially ultraviolet rays, also causes irreversible damage to materials. In general, we keep lights off in the stacks except when staff are in these areas. UV Filters minimize the impact when we do need light. We also monitor our stacks areas to make sure they remain pest-free.

PEM system
PEMs help us monitor the temperature and relative humidity. Note the yellow tint as UV filters help minimize light damage

Periodically we evaluate the condition of materials. During processing, archivists may perform preservation actions such as rehousing materials in acid-free materials. Materials, especially audiovisual formats, may be separated to better manage the physical items. Electronic media is also removed to extract that data. In short, archivists look for ways to prolong the life of materials in our holdings as part of normal activities.

Occasionally, our conservator will be informed of items that need additional actions to stable materials.

She has a strong chemistry background, so she evaluates why materials are fragile and brittle and possible ways to mitigate issues. Her blog is always a must-read for anyone curious about conservation techniques and decision-making processes.

How do you provide access to materials in archives?

A portion of materials have been digitized and may be accessed at any time through our website!

Additionally, we have created online exhibits that cover a variety of topics. During normal times, we curate lobby exhibits that highlight our holdings.

In addition to select online collections and exhibits, we also launched the Texas Digital Archive in 2016, which currently provides access to more than five million items, with more being added every day.

We also have a couple tools to help you identify materials that may of interest. Descriptive guides includes searchable databases and inventories of processed materials. Not everything has been processed, so check the library catalog as well. You may also contact our reference staff, ref@tsl.texas.gov, to assist you find materials of interest and explain options to access our holdings.

Due to concerns over the spread of coronavirus, our on-visitor services are only accessible by appointment. Other options, such as reproduction, may be available to meet your research needs. As the situation continues to evolve, we’ll continue to update the services we provide.

Our Before You Visit guide has additional information on tips on accessing our holdings.

How do we know this information about TSLAC’s holdings?

We document key information about our holdings and file them as appropriate. Each new transfer or donation is assigned a unique control number, typically referred to as an accession number. This number makes it easy to tie materials to its documentation.

Accession file for Texas Water Development Board found at TSLAC
Accession file for Texas Water Development Board administrative correspondence. In archives, the accession number is assigned based upon when it was received, not based upon the date of the records. Call numbers are largely assigned based upon this accession number. Unlike a library, materials with adjacent call numbers are often not related to each other.

Good records management processes help us locate and retrieved information about our holdings.  Much of this information is in paper form, though an increasing amount is available in digital form.

Archivists also learn about legacy filing systems and tools to better locate information.

Ledger found at TSLAC
Ledgers, such as this one, capture information about publications owned by the Texas Library and Historical Commission shortly after its creation in 1909. The Texas Library and Historical Commission become the Texas State Library and Archives Commission in 1979.
“Accessions, 1-5000, about 1909.” Archives and Information Services Division records, Texas State Library and Archives Commission, 306-55.

– Thank you Anna!

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