Preserving Historical Humor: The Society of Southwest Archivists Records

“When in doubt, throw it out.”  No, this is not the motto of The Texas Collection, but it was the slogan of a spoof newsletter for the Society of Southwest Archivists. Other jokes in the newsletter, called “The Missed Archivist,” describe a new collection called the Militant Blatherhood of Impenitent Ignorance, which purportedly contained baptism, confirmation, and inquisition records, as well as 163 barrels of blood. (That would be a preservation problem!) The Society obviously knew how to enjoy a joke while going about their more serious work of educating their members.

The Missed Archivist spoof newsletter, November 1975
From the official song--"Mold Gets in My Eyes"--to stapling advice, "The Missed Archivist" is full of archival puns and humor that those who have spent quality time in archives would greatly appreciate.

The Society of Southwest Archivists, or SSA, is a professional organization for archivists in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana. SSA was formed to promote best practices in the archival profession, educate members, and work with other groups on preserving historical manuscripts of interest. Currently, the association serves more than five hundred archivists, special collections librarians, preservationists, conservators, records managers, and others interested in the preservation of our documentary heritage.

Photo of SSA members
SSA Annual Meeting 1988 at the University of Texas at Arlington. From left to right: Jenkins Garrett (an important UTA Special Collections benefactor), Don W. Wilson, Charles B. Lowry, Virginia Garrett (Jenkins' wife, also a major UTA donor), and Donn C. Neal.

A group of interested information professionals formed the Society, wrote a constitution, and elected officers in May 1972. One year later, in 1973, SSA held its first annual meeting in Norman, Oklahoma, starting a tradition of holding an annual meeting in a different city each year. Governed by a president and other officers meeting as the Executive Board, the society added various committees over time to choose annual meeting sites, create programs for the meeting, produce a newsletter, and organize various other group functions. The society has also developed several awards and scholarships that have been awarded to members and non-members through the years.

We have about 21 linear feet worth of Society of Southwest Archivists records here at The Texas Collection. Retired Texas Collection archivist Ellen Kuniyuki Brown was a founding SSA member and helped bring the collection to Baylor. The collection preserves the history of the society, including a wide variety of materials from annual meetings, various committees, and early presidents.

The association has long enjoyed writing humorous articles and reading them at annual meetings. Every year someone would write a tongue-in-cheek article thanking the city and committee that hosted the last annual meeting. In 1983 the society was in Galveston for their meeting, and they thanked the chairman of the host committee by writing:

She [the Committee Chairman] has received…us on the pure, clean waters of pristine and sparkling Galveston Bay, has given us intensive care at the University of Texas hospital, has stranded us on the city’s celebrated waterfront, and has galvanized us into exploring the mysteries of the city’s geography, from P and a half street to Q and a quarter.

In 1986 the society thanked the host committee chairman by claiming that “she entertained us with an extravaganza called ‘Archivists on Ice’ celebrating the theme of hiring freezes,” and in 1990 the society was impressed with the city of Austin, Texas, which is “the only location in the Universe where the supposed nightly emergence of 700,000 flying, furry, friendly rodents could be considered a tourist attraction.”

SSA-CIMA meeting program, 1991
The 2012 meeting isn't the first time SSA has teamed up with CIMA, as seen in this 1991 Annual Meeting program.

While reflecting the Society’s important work of facilitating archival research, education, and best practices, the Society of Southwest Archivists Records also document the camaraderie and fun to be had when archivists gather. SSA is celebrating its 40th anniversary this week at its Annual Meeting, a joint gathering with the Conference of Inter-Mountain Archivists, in Mesa, Arizona. What happens in Arizona, stays in Arizona…unless it goes into the archives, that is!

P.S. to you SSA members—if you’ve been active in SSA and have records from any leadership positions, committee service, etc., should they be in the SSA archives? We especially need post-1995 records. Check out the finding aid and if you have something we don’t (but should), let us know!

By Paul Fisher, Processing Archivist

Introducing Research Ready

Processing archival collections is one of our central activities at The Texas Collection. In archivist lingo, “processing” means to enhance access to our records through arrangement and description. Archives are different from books—they usually don’t have a title page, table of contents, or an index to tell you about the contents.  And they’re often messy.

enfranchisement document
The Fred Bell papers: An 1867 enfranchisement oath.

Sometimes collections come to us in good order, with everything beautifully organized. However, it’s probably more common that we receive records that appear to have been boxed up with no particular order. In these cases, it’s our job to discern and implement an organizing principle, then to describe the arrangement and the records in what we call a finding aid. That way researchers have a good idea of what they might expect to find in an archives and can plan their projects accordingly.

The Texas Collection’s finding aids are posted on our website by subject and alphabetically. We’re in the process of upgrading our arrangement and description procedures to comply with Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS), and we’re working with catalogers at Baylor’s Moody Library to get our finding aids into BearCat (Baylor’s central catalog) too.

All this to say, we want you to know about our most recently processed collections! So we’re adding “Research Ready” as a monthly feature of “Blogging about Texas.” Each month, we will post a processing update to notify our readers about the latest collections that have finding aids online and are primed for research. Here’s the scoop for May:

  • Olga Fallen Papers: The Olga Fallen Collection contains material accumulated during her years at Baylor University as women’s athletic coordinator, basketball and softball coach, and professor. The items include correspondence, financial, photographic, and organizational material. The bulk of the collection relates to basketball. (See our blog post for more detail.)

    James Warren Smith, Texas Ranger
    The James Warren Smith Sr. papers provide insight into the Texas Rangers' activities along the Mexican border in the early 1900s.
  • James Warren Smith Sr. Papers: The James Warren Smith Sr. Papers consist of a diary, scrapbooks, and literary productions. The scrapbooks contain many photographs. Smith was a Texas Ranger in the early 1900s.
  • Fred Bell Papers: The Fred Bell Papers consist of one manuscript, an enfranchisement oath for African-American Fred Bell, living in Travis County, Texas.

You can see how wide and varied The Texas Collection’s holdings are! These records—and the finding aids we have online—are just a small representation of the thousands of collections we preserve for future researchers. We’re working hard to make our collections more visible and hope that one of them will spark your interest!

The Most Horrible Storm: A Firsthand Account of the 1953 Waco Tornado

If you have lived in Texas for any amount of time, you’ve experienced a tornado watch, and maybe even a tornado warning. The TV program you were watching is interrupted with dire weather maps, the radio DJ advises folks out in their cars to take shelter, the whole family huddles up in the bathtub—it’s all a little scary, especially when the sirens start to go off. And if you think your town is immune to tornados—as Huaco Native American legend said about Waco—well, an actual F5 storm striking your town is downright terrifying.

"Evidence of the might of a tornado"
Some structures were flattened, some remained standing. Their fates were determined both by structural supports and the tornado's whim.

Harry Gillett’s letter to his mother, started on May 11, 1953, and continued the next day, brings to life that experience of waiting for the Waco tornado and then witnessing its aftermath. Sent home early from the school where he taught, Gillett put pen to paper to describe the storm as it escalated. First he writes of a driving rain, and then of hailstones the size of half dollars. “It has gotten so dark outside that it is practically night and it is only about 4:25.”

Then the hailstones increase to the size of baseballs, and one breaks a shingle of his roof. His father calls and tells him the hail downtown is the size of his fist. The phone lines go down shortly after their conversation. “I have never seen anything like this before. No telling how much damage will be done. There go the lights.”

How much damage will be done, indeed.  In the next paragraph, Gillett writes, “I am continuing this letter at 5:00 the morning after I started writing it. Waco had the most horrible storm you can imagine.” The tornado entered the Waco city limits at 4:32 pm, and the funnel cloud was downtown by 4:36. Gillett’s North Waco home is unscathed, apart from the broken shingle. He’s lucky. His letter describes the damage done to the homes of relatives and friends—from a flooded home to a house blown off its foundation, moved a few feet, and “simply ruined.”

Harry Gillett letter describing the 1953 Waco tornado, page 4
Harry Gillett's letter to his mother gives us insight into the before and after of the 1953 Waco tornado.

But other parts of Waco saw much greater devastation. Some houses were blown to bits. Gillett’s school in East Waco was destroyed, with his classroom the only one left standing on the top floor. And in downtown Waco, the toll, both property and human, was enormous. “R.T. Dennis [building] fell in completely and most of the buildings from there to the river were completely blown apart. Hundreds of people were killed…Downtown Waco has been put under martial law and Daddy will not be able to get to work. Many gas lines are broken down town and everyone is afraid of a terrible explosion.”

The Waco tornado is tied with the 1902 Goliad tornado as the deadliest in Texas history, and is one of the most deadly in US history. 114 people were killed, and property damage was in excess of $50 million—with inflation, that would be about $400 million today. The Waco tornado helped incite the development of a nationwide severe weather warning system. On this week of the 59th year since the tornado, we remember those who were lost.

You can read the complete letter at The Texas Collection in the Harry Gillett papers. Gillett also saved a few postcards depicting the 1953 tornado’s impact, which we’ve featured in the slide show below. If you’re interested in reading, watching, or listening to more accounts of the storm, check out Waco Tornado 1953: Force that Changed the Face of Waco (an oral history project by the Waco-McLennan County Library and the Baylor Institute for Oral History), “Living Stories: Radio and the 1953 Waco Tornado,” a collaboration of the Institute for Oral History and KWBU-FM, and the “Waco Tornado: Tragedy and Triumph” video at the Texas Archive of the Moving Image. The Portal to Texas History and Waco Tribune-Herald also have compelling images and contemporary news coverage of the storm.