The Texas Collection at Baylor University may be getting older, but it’s gaining fresh life and research recognition thanks to its online outreach and branding.
A donation of 1,000 books by Waco physician Dr. Kenneth Hazen Aynesworth in 1923 founded what has become a sprawling collection of books, photographs, maps, correspondence, news clippings and audio-visual resources capturing the history and cultural markers of the vast state of Texas.
Now, as the collection marks its 90th anniversary, it is building a healthy online presence to share that wealth of data with a broader national and global audience.
Staff members share historical tidbits from the collection on Facebook, while photo-sharing site Flickr is used to post rare images of notable Texans or events. Staffers also have created YouTube videos with overviews of some of the archive holdings or special exhibits, including a current display on paper currency issued in the Texas Republic era.
And the university archivist uses an online tool called “Archive It” to capture current articles, video and media posts about Baylor figures like former Lady Bear Brittney Griner and Heisman-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III.
“I think it’s engaging an entirely different type of user,” said John Wilson, director of the Texas Collection. “For a long time we were thought to be very scholarly and unapproachable, and we certainly are scholarly, but we’re here to promote Texas . . . so I think it has helped us rethink who we are as a special collection, and how we make our materials more accessible.”
For example, the Texas Collection kicked off a digital project this spring to share handwritten Civil War-era letters penned by Dr. Alex Morgan, a Waco physician who left his family in 1861 to serve three years in the Confederate Army in Louisiana.
During the course of about eight weeks, digital scans of the letters with transcriptions were posted online three days a week, drawing a few thousand people who read the candid exchanges between Morgan and his wife, Fanny.
“How many people would have come in to read those letters in person? Two, three maybe in a year? And that’s even high,” Wilson said, adding that digital scanning also helps preserve delicate, older documents that would tear easily with extended use.
Copyright restrictions may prevent some of the books and creative materials in the collection from being scanned. But promoting the digitized pieces has created more interest in visiting the center, which is housed in Baylor’s Carroll Library and open to the public.
Wilson said a graduate student at the University of Cambridge wants to travel to Waco to browse Texas Collection materials related to famed Baptist minister the Rev. Foy Valentine’s civil rights work.
People from Canada, Australia and the U.K. regularly submit online reference questions to Texas Collection staffers, and, second only to U.S. users, Italy residents racked up the most views on the collection’s Facebook page in July.
“With social media, those are more of the (casual browsing) type of people, but it can lead to research,” said Amie Oliver, coordinator for user and access services at the collection. “Once people are aware of your collection and what it is you actually have, then they start thinking, ‘I have these things, would they be interested in this?’ or ‘I wonder if they would have this sort of thing that I’m looking for.’ ”
And there’s no shortage of items in the collection to suit any Texas-themed research interest.
There are the 600 boxes of papers from Texas governor and Baylor president Pat Neff, which took a staff member more than two years to process; volumes of photos chronicling the aftermath of the deadly 1953 Waco tornado; maps dating back to the mid-1800s showing the evolution of the state and country lines; 9-1-1 tapes from the 1993 Branch Davidian siege; records from various churches (yes, even non-Baptist congregations); documents chronicling Japanese rice farmers’ efforts to settle in Houston; more than 3,000 cookbooks on Texas cuisine; and dime novels from the 1850s with fictional accounts of life in Texas and the Wild West.
Oliver said oil companies have looked for land records ahead of planned construction projects.
The collection also is popular for genealogy searches, with some residents crafting their family histories or looking to establish lineage to join groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.
And no true compilation of Texas culture is complete without football references. The Texas Collection has materials on college football like the Big 12 and former Southwest Conference, as well as the mega-franchise Dallas Cowboys.
“I’ve had someone write a paper on the Houston Oilers leaving to Tennessee and the effect that had on Houston’s economy, and how Houstonians felt about that,” Oliver said. “He did an entire 20-page paper on that.”
Wilson said the Texas Collection typically gets new donations each week from residents throughout the state.
For example, a former state trooper last week gifted the collection with thousands of photos his father captured of Texas wildlife and outdoor locations between the 1920s and 1950s as a writer for a nature magazine.
The Texas Collection also has three different special endowments and a budget from Baylor to buy books and rare materials each year, though Wilson declined to give an estimate for its average annual purchases.
“We’re not a storehouse, and we’re not a museum. What we have is meant to be used,” Wilson said. “We want this material to be used, and we want people to love it as much as we do and we want it to be here for the next generation, because we think Texas is pretty important.”
Texas Collection facts
Oldest Item: A 1482 book on geography printed in Latin
Largest archives: The Pat Neff Collection, 600 boxes of family documents, photographs, correspondence, and gubernatorial papers
Most researched topics: The 1953 Waco Tornado; the Branch Davidian siege
Number of books: More than 167,000 titles
Number of photos: 1.4 million images
Number of historic maps: 17,000
Number of annual visitors: Between 4,100 and 5,000 on average
Number of reference questions fielded each month: 45 to 55 average, with staff spending 40 hours a month answering questions
Facebook stats: 782 likes; 2,648 unique users in June
Twitter followers: 305
Flickr views: 435,126
Youtube views: 4,104