One Mission—Four Locations—Fostering Exploration of Our Nation’s Past
The Briscoe Center for American History is one of the nation’s leading research centers for historical study. The center’s archives, libraries, museums, and historic buildings are part of the The University of Texas at Austin’s commitment to collecting, preserving, and making available the evidence of the past.
When the university opened in 1883, it began collecting materials documenting the history of Texas and the South. These collections were organized during the 1950s into the Barker Texas History Center, the nation’s most comprehensive archive about the history of the Lone Star State. In 1991, under the leadership of Dr. Don Carleton, the university established the Center for American History, building upon the foundation of the Texas and Southern collections as well as other emerging collection strengths such as photojournalism and news media history. It was named in honor of Governor Dolph Briscoe in 2008.
The center’s exhibit spaces, classrooms, and Reading Room are located on The University of Texas at Austin campus. The center also operates the Briscoe–Garner Museum in Uvalde, Texas; the Sam Rayburn Museum in Bonham, Texas; and Winedale, a research collection of nineteenth-century structures, material culture, and decorative arts located near Round Top, Texas.
The Briscoe Center promotes the university’s teaching and research mission through classes and seminars, academic fellowships, faculty collaborations, and student internships. The center fosters public exploration of history through research services, exhibits, books, public programs, and digital humanities projects inspired by archival holdings.
The Briscoe Center represents the combined endeavors of over a century of collecting efforts at the University of Texas at Austin. The initial focus of those efforts was Texas and Southern history. From the 1890s to the 1950s, history faculty at the university—notably Eugene C. Barker—along with archives and library staff, administrators, alumni and friends, and the Texas State Historical Association, worked to acquire, preserve and make available the historical records of Texas. Their combined efforts culminated in 1950 with the creation of the Eugene C. Barker Texas History Center in the beautiful Old Library building designed by Cass Gilbert (later known as Battle Hall). The Barker Center brought together for the first time two separate departments of the University Library: the Archives and the Texas Collection Library, along with the offices of the Texas State Historical Association. By that time, the university had built vast collections of books, manuscripts, maps, newspapers, broadsides, photographs, and other historically valuable material documenting the development of Texas and the Southwest. With the creation of the Barker Center, the university gave official recognition to the unique value of those materials; elevated the status of the collections on campus; paid homage to Barker, who symbolized the professionalism of Texas historians; and assured the proper housing, permanent existence, and growth of one of the most important regional history collections in the United States.
With its heightened profile and prestige, the Barker Center attracted even more valuable historical materials to its expanding collections of Texas history. That fact was exemplified by the newly acquired Vandale Collection of Texana and Western Americana, which was exhibited at the center’s opening in 1950. Under the direction of Llerena Friend (1950–60), Dorman Winfrey (1960–61), and Chester Kielman (1962–79), the center continued to build its archival and library holdings. Furthermore, it enhanced the university’s bibliographic control over these collections, a project culminating in the publication of Kielman’s 1967 guide to the University of Texas Archives. In the era before online searching, the guide was the most effective way to make the substantive content of the center’s manuscript holdings available to researchers both on and off campus.
By the mid-1960s, the center’s archives were largely focused on the nineteenth century, specifically from 1836 onward. The Barker Center remained in the Old Library Building until the need for more space prompted a move in 1971 to its present quarters in Sid Richardson Hall. At the same time, the center was reorganizing and microfilming the Bexar Archives, one of its seminal archival collections, with a National Historical Publications Commission grant.
Although the Barker Center was predicated on the study of Texas and Southwestern history, many of its collections—such as the papers of former members of Congress—transcended the geographical and thematic boundaries of the region to embrace national topics. When the center’s current director, Don Carleton, came aboard at the end of 1979, he was encouraged to pursue new initiatives to heighten the center’s profile as a repository for both regional and national history. Accordingly, the center began to acquire research collections in such diverse fields as music and entertainment, twentieth-century politics and government, energy, photography, civil rights, news media, and even mathematics and science. A series of structural and administrative changes transformed the original regional history center into the leading American history research center that it is today. The first major administrative change came in 1991, when The University of Texas System board of regents created the Center for American History, which combined the Barker Texas History Center with the Sam Rayburn Library and Museum, which had just become part of the university. In 1995, the Center for American History was separated from the University Library and reorganized as an independent research unit. That same year, the center acquired the Winedale Historical Center, which had been donated to the university in the mid-1960s by the noted philanthropist Miss Ima Hogg. And in 1999, the center acquired the John Nance Garner Museum in Uvalde, Texas.
The role of another Uvalde native deserves special mention. Dolph Briscoe, a successful rancher, oilman, banker, protégé of Vice President John Nance Garner, and former governor of Texas (1973–79), donated his papers to the Center for American History. The center also published his memoir, Dolph Briscoe: My Life in Texas Ranching and Politics, in 2008. Governor Briscoe believed so passionately in the historical mission of the center that he established a permanent endowment in 2008 to ensure its continued success. In recognition of his generous support, the university regents renamed the center the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History that same year. Following suit, the regents also renamed the Garner Museum the Briscoe-Garner Museum in 2010.
The center also benefited from generous gifts in support of its mission, two of which deserve particular mention. In 1988, Houston oilman and former university regent J. R. Parten funded the Parten Chair in the Archives of American History, the first unrestricted endowment in the center’s history. The endowment made possible the expansion of the center’s programs as well as its ability to acquire collections for which it previously did not have the resources. And in 2009, the board of regents established the center’s Creekmore and Adele Hay Fath Excellence Fund in American History Resources.
As the center grew, it also embarked on an ambitious program of public outreach, which included newsletters highlighting collections and programs, symposia and public lectures, and publications. The latter include a biography of J. R. Parten and memoirs by CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite; former University of Texas head coach Darrell Royal; Dolph Briscoe; former Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby; businessman and philanthropist Red McCombs; and pioneering heart surgeon Denton Cooley. Several of those books are based on oral history interviews conducted by the center. In addition, the center sponsors a number of oral history projects based on its collection strengths, including the Texas House Speakers project and the Shirley Bird Perry University of Texas project.
The Briscoe Center’s collections also inspire exhibits, documentary films and digital projects. In 2010, the center produced the award-winning documentary film, When I Rise, which chronicles the racial ordeal and personal triumph of singer Barbara Smith Conrad. In addition to the numerous exhibits on display in the center’s various locations, exhibits have also traveled throughout the United States. The center has sponsored several major touring exhibits, including Cronkite: Eyewitness to History, News to History: Photojournalism and the Presidency, and Texas Furniture from Miss Ima Hogg’s Winedale. Other projects highlight certain specialized collection strengths, such as the Military History Institute (an educational outreach and archival program with a special focus on World War II), the Videogame Archive, and the Bernard Rapport Legacy Project (based on the papers of the celebrated philanthropist and businessman). A major aspect of the center’s public services involves making collections accessible remotely through digitization and online repositories. For example, the Bexar Archives Online features more than five thousand items (twenty-three thousand pages) from the archives.
To provide better access to its collections, the Briscoe Center completed a comprehensive renovation of its public spaces on the university campus in 2017. Thanks to the generosity of over 300 donors, the Briscoe Center now offers a first class reading room for research; three exhibit galleries; and two classrooms for a variety of public and academic programs such as lectures, panel discussions, symposia, book talks, and film screenings. These rejuvenated spaces make the Briscoe Center a destination for students, scholars, and history devotees. They have also led to a first class exhibit program on campus. The center’s recent exhibits include Exploring the American South: The Briscoe Center’s Southern History Collections and Greatest Hits: The Briscoe Center’s Music Collections.
The center has consistently raised its own national profile, along with that of the university, to new standards of scholarship and public service. With its diverse sources of funding, the sustaining Briscoe endowment, innovative collection development, and vigorous programs for public outreach, the center is well positioned to continue its mission.