Why We Collect Texana
Though Special Collections at Southwestern University traces its beginning to 1938, the collection of special and rare materials began in earnest with the gift of the Edward A. Clark Collection of Texana in 1967. At the time of gift, Ambassador Clark’s collection was considered the best collection still in private hands. His collection is especially rich in Republic era materials, as well as Texana from the later 19th and early 20th centuries. Thanks to the Ambassador’s continued support, this collection is still among the best of its type in the country. That initial gift from Clark was expanded through the gift of the papers and library of Senator John G. Tower. Thanks to Tower’s longevity and breadth of interest, this gift significantly expanded our Texana holdings - especially in the realm of Texas politics. More recently, the acquisition of the collections of F. Warren Roberts and Llerena B. Friend have created great strengths in our holdings of 20th century Texana - especially in the work of Carl Hertzog, Tom Lea, and Jose Cisneros.
The best way to honor these people and their gifts to Southwestern are for us to continue collecting - by gift and acquisition - Texana. It also falls to us to expand the definition of Texana beyond its traditional definition.
I can name on one hand the number of institutions that collect Texana in depth and with focus. This is not a sudden shift but, rather, a slow process over decades. I’ve argued previously that the “golden age” of collecting Texana has passed - and a cursory glance at the number of institutions, dealers, and collectors actively working in the area are far fewer in number than they were 30 or 40 years ago. It occurs to me that as one of those few institutions that collect Texana with depth and focus it is my responsibility to illuminate why we collect Texana, and why Texana is worthy of serious collecting by both institutions and collectors. What follows are five points that speak to the “why” of collecting Texana: some of them specific to Special Collections at Southwestern University, and others more broadly applicable.
Before I embark on those 5 points, I want to acknowledge my own bias in this brief essay. I am, to adopt a colloquialism, a “Native Texan” (meaning I was born here) and so have been inculcated with the belief that Texas is - thanks to our geographic location and our unusual (and violent) history - somehow superior to the other states. As such, this place merits more study and collecting than other places; let’s call this Texas Exceptionalism. That exceptionalism is something I struggle against in my position regularly. However, I am fascinated - both personally and professionally - by the material culture and print history of this place. Those materials tend to “lay bare” the inherent strangeness and contradictions of this place called Texas.
First, many special collections seek to collect the history of the state and region in which they reside - as Special Collections here does with Texana. It is altogether fitting and proper to do this. Collecting local and regional history can be a less daunting (and financially demanding) prospect than collecting incunables, for example. The material is typically readily available and inexpensive. Community archives are much more easily created when the institution is in the same geographic location as the community seeking to create their archive. Collecting locally also helps to more closely link the special collections library or department to the community that they serve. This drives increased usage of our collections (digitally and physically), contributing to greater recognition and use. Southwestern is very much in and of Texas - our identity as an institution is intertwined with the concept and place of Texas - and our collecting in that area is a reflection of that identity and the concomitant interest it creates in our users.
Second, also closely linked to Texas as a place is Southwestern’s identity as the first institution of higher education in Texas. The history of this university and Texas are so closely linked that it is difficult to talk about Southwestern and its early history without referencing the history of Texas. As the first institution of higher education here, we hold much of what remains from the earliest efforts in higher education in Texas. Indeed, we hold the only copies of material related to many of our root colleges - Rutersville, Wesleyan, McKenzie, and Soule. Many of the people involved with those colleges loom large in the history of Texas. Thus, it is fitting and proper that we collect Texana.
Third, as of this writing - late Spring of 2018 - Texana seems under collected by other institutions, as I alluded to in the first paragraph. Looking at the number of ABAA dealers who focus on Texana is a testament to this trend. In the most recent printed ABAA membership directory, only one dealer is listed as specializing in Texana. The former institutional giants collecting Texana now have a tepid interest in expanding their collections - especially institutions on the east coast. Even institutions in Texas, and those in the capital city are generally disinterested in acquiring new material. The comparatively low prices for Texana compared to the market historically further illuminate this under collecting trend. There are, of course, always high spot Texana items on the market that demand 5 and 6 figure prices, but the bulk of the available material can be acquired fairly cheaply - in contrast to past inflation adjusted prices.
Fourth, this trend of under collecting is applicable to that which is traditionally considered Texana - produced largely by anglo authors and reinforcing a specific narrative about Texas that largely excludes all other groups - but even more under collected are items produced by historically underrepresented and disenfranchised groups. Traditional Texana collecting almost completely ignores the historically diverse place that Texas is - and has been since before written history. Looking at one of the classic Texana reference works - Jenkins’ Basic Texas Books, one finds a shocking lack of representation of disadvantaged peoples and groups. Special Collections at Southwestern seeks out material from those groups - as collecting Texana today demands that the act and work of collecting reflects the remarkable diversity of this place - and not parrot the Anglo canon and narrative of the history of Texas.
Finally: deep, focused, and thoughtful collecting of Texana speaks to all areas of study in a liberal arts university. History, literature, and the social sciences are - of course - the most obvious connections. However, Texas has a rich art history as many significant artists are from, or have worked in, Texas. Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Russell, Frederic Remington, Richard Avedon, and Donald Judd are the most famous, but are not the only major artists associated with the state. Beyond the humanities - think of Texas’ leadership in the sciences, especially in the 20th century. Some of the most significant scientific and medical breakthroughs have come from Texas. Music and food in Texas also merit deep study in the liberal arts. Indeed, almost any field has interesting and relevant ties to be found in a deep and intentional collection of Texana. To wit - in my time thus far at Southwestern we’ve had class engagements with our Texana materials from students taking Chinese, religion, Latin, public health, theater, history of science, food culture, and animal behavior.
These five reasons - as well as our historically strong collection of Texana are why Special Collections at Southwestern continues to collect Texana deeply, with focus, and in depth. Some of these reasons are more broadly applicable than others and will serve, I hope, to prompt other institutions to resume thoughtful collecting in this field.