The NeverEnding Story: One Year Through Poage

This blog post was composed by graduate student Bailey Edling, a master’s student in the History Department.

A small brick building sits on Baylor’s campus, situated between Starbucks and Moody and Jones Libraries. I sit inside that building, surrounded by rows of shelves filled with paperwork, books, old furniture, and dust. I am probably pulling staples from an old piece of paper or organizing a stack of folders from a re-processed collection. It is likely quiet, I have a headphone in, and I am listening to a podcast that I have to pause to read a letter that’s caught my eye. My time in the W. R. Poage Legislative Library archives broadly followed a similar routine. Yet just like the collections I examined, tucked between news clippings and congressional reports, each day held a little surprise.

I began working in the archives one year into my time at Baylor University. As a History Department graduate student, I was familiar with research in archives. Still, I was unaware of all the hidden and exciting artifacts in each collection housed in Poage. My daily and monthly tasks had me frequently pulling random collections and examining the papers within, whether to help protect the collections from old acidic or rusting filing items or to find something to write about on Poage’s blog. Poage Library houses legislative collections from state senators to federal representatives, judges, a Lieutenant Governor, and the people who supported them, their secretaries, wives, families, and other staff. While these collections are perhaps niche, they hold an immense variety of subject matter and materials.

A Christmas card featuring George H. W. Bush, his wife Barbara, and dog
George H. W. and Barbara Bush Christmas card

My first task at Poage was to process a recently acquired collection, the John Leedom papers. In Leedom’s collection, I found handwritten letters and photographs from five U.S. Presidents and their wives. Another task had me scouring through large boxes to locate interesting documents related to the Civil Rights Movement, wherein I found a letter hand signed by Martin Luther King, Jr. For one blog post I wrote, I looked through dozens of Christmas cards featuring family photos of the Bushes in their grooviest 1970’s clothing, cards signed by the infamous Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon, and even, the subject matter of my blog post, several cards signed by the man at the center of a political scandal I was unfamiliar with. My daily explorations through random folders in the archives not only brought me closer to history I was very interested in—who doesn’t love reading about the Watergate scandal—but also history I was very unaware of.

A constituent letter with flowery patterns on envelope
A constituent letter on “groovy” stationery

As unsurprising as it may be that a history student enjoyed learning more about history, there were other facets to the archives that I loved and would suggest others explore. The first is constituent letters. Constituent letters hold a lot of valuable information about a person, time, and place in American history. They also hold a tremendous amount of beauty. Every day I took pictures of letterhead with bold and elegant patterns, of old and unique logos embossed into personalized stationery, and of postage stamps faded but no less visually appealing. [3][4] I can imagine a graphic design, fashion design, and textile manufacturing student finding inspiration from the thousands of letters throughout the archive.

Almost every collection, no matter the size, features photographs. As the Poage collections span most of the 20th century, each collection features photographs that speak to more than just the archival subject. Some are family photos, others taken at small community centers during a political campaign, and many feature presidents and recognizable political leaders. They are taken worldwide, from Egypt and South Korea to Panama and Waco, Texas. While they often provided me entertainment and a brief break from processing, they could also be a great source of information for a political science student, a vital source for a journalism major, and the perfect backdrop or final set piece for a theater production. Most often organized in each archive by date, if not location and subject matter, they are quick and easy to flip through.

As most of the collections in Poage are from elected officials, many feature subseries related to their campaigns. Campaign folders are a treasure trove, an amalgam of all my favorite finds. They can feature political cartoons and news clippings as well as photos on the road of rallies and networking events; one random envelope featured a young George W. Bush (casually labeled “George Jr.”) Some collections offer quaint memories on the campaign trail, such as blue ribbons won at county fairs, handwritten flyers for local carnivals, artwork from children, and promotional pins. A few feature handwritten notes, funny and personal anecdotes written on scrap pieces of paper, and the occasional harsh commentary from locals who leverage their vote for changes in legislation. These folders are random and unpredictable; they are interesting in how they are compiled; I often wonder why some documents were left in the file when others were ostensibly thrown out. I wonder what might have been in those documents deemed too irrelevant (or, perhaps, too scandalous) to include.

Business letterhead for Tex Tan with image of a cowboy
Business letterhead for Tex Tan

As I leave Poage, I hope to impart that its collections hold more than sources for an essay; it’s valuable for students outside of the History Department. Working at the Poage Legislative Library was a constant reminder of the value of the past and the beauty of change. I touched letters of men and women, long since passed, who had written their congressmen on a matter that had profoundly impacted their lives while barely touching my own. I read through painstaking amendments in legislation that had taken months, if not years, to pass, that I was completely unaware of. I held newspapers long out of print, marveled over letterhead from businesses no longer in existence, and examined family photos that once hung in someone’s home. A trip to the Poage archives offers the opportunity to draw insight and inspiration from the past and the humbling privilege of interacting with collections that will likely outlive all of us.

Photo Citations

Bush, George H.W. “W.R. Poage Christmas Card,” n.d. Administration, Office Files, Christmas Cards. W. R. Poage Legislative Library.

Ellis, Carl. E. “O.C. Fisher Constituent Letter,” January 17, 1972. O.C. Fisher papers, Legislation. W. R. Poage Legislative Library.

Tex Tan of Yoakum. “O.C. Fisher Constituent Letter,” n.d. O.C. Fisher papers, Legislation. W. R. Poage Legislative Library.

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