Ode to Archives

I thought archival research would be a new and interesting challenge, but I love libraries, am relatively good at research, and usually can finish my school work without too much fear and trembling. I was not all that daunted by the assignment. However, I’ve learned archival research is a lot more complicated than I thought. The class got the details of our assignment on Thursday night: we had exactly one week to find and upload some kind of document to the Transatlantic Writing Project. With Friday and Sunday the only days I did not have work obligations, the schedule turned into the first hurdle. Thankfully, my group members (Andrew and Justin) and me were able to meet Friday morning at the UTA Specials Collection.

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We walked into the archive and found a beautiful library, with burnished wood shelves and desks and graceful old books lined up neatly, preserved behind glass and illuminated with soft lighting. The library is designed with nooks and alcoves, each fitted with a large table for a group to gather around and spread out materials. Book rests and stacks of paper are scattered around, waiting for eager researchers. The best part of the library, though, was the librarians.

The librarians in the special collection were fantastic. They were kind and obliging, helping us navigate the catalogs and indexes, bringing out material they thought would work, and revealing the mysteries of the library to me. After a long morning, I had to leave with a list of relevant information, and was unable to go back to the library. Thankfully, Andrew and Justin had different time constraints and were able to go back to the library together, when a librarian brought out our jewel, the Emily D. West letter. We could not have gotten anywhere on this assignment without the assistance of the librarians, and I have thank you notes and Starbucks cards waiting to be delivered to the UTA Specials Collection on Wednesday.

On the way to finding our letter, we waded through a LOT of old materials. First, we found a collection on a lawyer who had charges brought against him in Texas for being an abolitionist; we don’t know if his accusers were able to disbar him, but we did read through a 26-page letter comparing Texas to New York, I believe. Sadly, there was not a mention of slaves or other black people, so we were forced to dig deeper. From there, we looked over the papers of an old slaveholder; he kept a journal with births and deaths of all his slaves. However, his writing was hard to read (a grave disappointment after the beautifully written lawyer’s letter), and we decided to look further. A family who kept every scrap of paper and receipt ever had it’s own box; we read through receipts and letters and orders and bills for over an hour, but we could not find the freemen’s contracts promised by the index, nor did the letters mention slaves. My own archival research ended after surrendering to that old box, but my partners persevered until we were brought the Emily D. West Letter.

 

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This letter is one of the only three pieces of paper surviving directly relating to Emily D. West, better known as the legendary Yellow Rose of Texas. UTA has the only paper with her actual signature!

 Finding an interesting piece at the archive was only the first half of this adventure. From there, we had to obtain permission to use the piece, double-check with Dr. May, get a hold of additional material to supplement the letter, transcribe the letter ourselves, check it against the transcription provided by the library, get a better scan to put on the website, talk even more with the wonderful librarians (who got us an excellent image of the letter!), write annotations, and move on from there.

We are still working on our annotations, to date, and still putting the project together, but over all, it has been an amazing experience. Dr. May is right; there is nothing quite like going into the archives, meeting with the guardians of knowledge there, finding interesting old documents, wading through the detritus of one life only to find jewels buried in the midst. I felt like a treasure hunter, a fearless explorer. I was awed by the age, the history, the documents, the librarians. Words fail here. Next time, you need to come with me.

(And go Like the Specials Collection Facebook Page!)

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