Information gold mine
Interested in Texas, Mexico and the Southwest? UT Arlington’s Special Collections is an essential resource
Walk through the towering stacks of carefully preserved documents—boxes crammed with letters from the frontier and records of bitter labor negotiations, maps created by Spanish conquistadors, first-person accounts of battles won and lost—and you can almost hear them whispering.
The people who explored, settled, fought over and died in what is now Texas left quite a legacy, and the UT Arlington Library preserves it for anyone willing to explore. Historians can even examine an early Texan’s saddle and branding irons.
Special Collections spans the Mexican American War of 1846-1848; the cartographic history of Texas, the Gulf of Mexico and the Southwest; Mexican political history from 1810 to 1920; and the history of the University itself.
The collection includes 50,000 books, 7,000 sheet maps, 3,000 atlases, 1,528 archives/manuscript collections and 4 million photographs, plus journals, newspapers, brochures, oral history interviews, sheet music, videotapes and film, microfilm, audio recordings, globes, and various art and artifacts.
Special Collections began with the Texas Labor Archives in 1967 but took on its current persona in 1974 when Virginia and Jenkins Garrett of Fort Worth donated their vast trove of Texas-related maps, documents and memorabilia. Jenkins Garrett had begun collecting all manner of things relating to Texas and Mexico in the 1950s, and his wife became fascinated with maps of the region. The oldest map in the Virginia Garrett Cartographic History Library, part of Special Collections, is “Secunda etas mundi; secunda etas müdi” (“the second age of the world”) and was published in 1493 in Nuremberg, Germany, by Hartman Schedel. It is also Special Collections’ oldest published item.
Program coordinator Ann Hodges says every item in the collection exists to serve. “We are most concerned with informational content,” she explained, “so that people can research.”
If inquiring minds want to know about Texas, Mexico or the Southwest, Special Collections is the place to go.
UT Arlington history Professor Richard Francaviglia is fascinated by the connections between geography and history—how the land shapes the people and how the people shape the land. Special Collections figures prominently in his research, particularly Historic Texas From the Air, a book he is co-writing.
The book compares current aerial photos of Texas landmarks with earlier images of the same places and makes extensive use of the vintage postcards collected by Jenkins Garrett. When the book is printed (probably next year), readers will see how people and place have interacted to change such famous battle sites as the Alamo and San Jacinto, as well as the lesser known Medicine Mounds, a series of small hills near Wichita Falls that were sacred to the Comanche.
Aerial views of some places, such as Palo Duro Canyon, can be startling. Although Historic Texas From the Air will include historical maps from the Virginia Garrett Collection, it is impossible to appreciate the dramatic change from flat Panhandle farmland to the precipitous cliffs of Palo Duro without the photographs.
“I’m obsessive about place,” said Dr. Francaviglia, director of the Center for Greater Southwestern Studies and the History of Cartography. “I’m addicted to research. But thank goodness for an obsession like that.”
Thanks also to the Garretts and other donors to Special Collections.
Like the Garretts, many individuals want to donate. If the items fit the library’s mission—if they are historically valuable and relate to Texas, Mexico or the Southwest—they frequently are accepted. Librarians may also refer potential donors to other library collections more suitable.
Resources for researchers
Archivists measure manuscripts in linear feet, and UT Arlington’s more than 1,500 manuscript collections comprise 9,327 feet. Some donations may include only two or three letters while others hold hundreds of documents, but all contribute to the historical record and all are available to researchers.
In fiscal 2006, Special Collections welcomed almost 1,500 researchers investigating a variety of topics. UT Arlington faculty and students are regulars, but faculty from other universities, genealogy enthusiasts, architects, contractors, historic preservationists and many others also request materials.
Susan Kline, a Fort Worth-based historic preservation consultant, frequently uses articles and photographs from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that are part of the holdings.
Most of her research focuses on historic resources, particularly buildings, although she is currently researching the Fort Worth Botanic Garden and the Henderson Street Bridge. Usually, she conducts the work to get properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
“I use the Star-Telegram clippings and various photo collections to try to learn who designed or built the resource, who owned it and what the overall historic context is,” she said. “The Star-Telegram clippings collection provides a shortcut to my research and can keep me from spending hours going through reel after reel of newspapers on microfilm. Or it can tip me off as to what I should be looking for.”
One of Kline’s recent projects involved research on the Leuda-May Historic District in Fort Worth, a small area of apartment buildings constructed between 1923 and 1941. During the 1940s, she discovered, Fort Worth had rent controls, built-in limits regarding what a landlord could charge tenants. One local landlord charged more than the limit, and the case had to be resolved in federal court.
In her report nominating the area for listing on the U.S. Department of the Interior National Register of Historic Places, Kline explained the situation.
“Rent controls were popular with tenants as they provided protection from hikes in rents and unjustified evictions. They were less popular with property owners and managers, Realtors, and others in the business community. Following the war, landlords claimed that the rent controls caused undue hardships on their community at a time when many other price regulations were being abolished.”
Eventually the property owners, Pirl Steagall and his son Robert, were accused of trying to evict tenants unlawfully and of overcharging rents. The case was heard in federal court in Fort Worth, where Judge T. Whitfield Davidson ordered them to make restitution of $5,782 to 51 tenants. Interestingly, Davidson was among those who criticized the continued practice of rent controls.
Probably the most requested item in Special Collections is a series of photographs from the Star-Telegram collection. In July 1947, something mysterious crashed outside Roswell, N.M., and the paper was the only major daily to send a photographer. Though the images remain unexplained and the full story may never be known, “we get repeated requests for reproductions of those photographs,” Hodges said.
Items in demand
Although Special Collections items do not leave the library, copies may be provided. September 2005 was a typical month. Home Box Office requested images from the Star-Telegram photo collection for the TV show “Costas Now.” Items from the Texas AFL-CIO collection were requested for inclusion in “North Aztlan: A History of Mexican Americans in the United States.” The Discovery Channel requested the Roswell images for “Strangest UFO Stories,” as did Sky One Television in Great Britain for “Conspiracy Theories: Alien Invasion.” And information provided from the Mexican-American Farm Workers Movement collection appeared in “Teaching Mexican American History,” published in the Organization of American Historians’ Magazine of History.
Numerous books crediting materials from Special Collections have been published or are under contract, including Lone Stars of David: A History of the Jews of Texas by Hollace Weiner; I Can Do My Own Killing by Gary Sleeper; Mavericks by Gene Fowler; Early Success of Six Flags Over Texas by Cameron Wallace; Ben E. Keith Company: The First 100 Years by Liz Oliphant; Texas Disasters by Linda Cox; A Rosary of Hidden Voices: Catholicism in the American West by Roberto Treviño; and Downtown Dallas: Romantic Past, Modern Renaissance by Mark Price.
As more researchers discover Special Collections, the library itself is reaching out in new ways. Two projects provide online access to historic resources: the Texas Heritage Digitization Initiative and the Texas Archival Resources Online. The digitization will put actual historic documents online, and the archiving provides an efficient way to look up materials, quickly determining what documents and information are in each manuscript collection.
Gerald Saxon, dean of the UT Arlington Library, says the mission of Special Collections is simple.
“It is essentially a laboratory for social scientists and humanists who do extensive research in the records and documents of the past.”
In other words, if you’re interested in the peoples of Texas, Mexico and the Southwest—what they did, when, where and why—this place is for you.
— Sherry W. Neaves