It’s hard to believe that nearly two months have passed since the university began its temporary closure of campus in response to Covid-19. As has often happened in history, American life appears to have crossed a sort of tipping point. Our life and work have been upended, just as it was for people in say, 1860, 1941, and 2001. While a portion of the response unfolding around us is rooted in previous plans and assumptions, much of it is new, unknown, and disturbing. Later this year, life will hopefully return to normal in many ways—but in other ways it may not. A “new normal” will no doubt emerge, just like it has during other key periods of American history.
In the meantime, we continue to make sense of it as best we can. I mention this because while scientists (including many here at the University of Texas at Austin) are rightly taking the lead on matters related to Covid-19, the past is not without its lessons, warnings, and reassurances for us when it comes to making sense of our present predicament.
The Briscoe Center’s collections include important documentation that helps us understand the effects of previous epidemics and the public health initiatives that were drafted in response. Those collections include the papers of early Texas doctors and public health officials (who dealt with epidemics such as yellow fever, smallpox, and cholera), World War I nurses and soldiers (who witnessed Spanish influenza firsthand), the university archives, and various oral history projects.
For example, in the 1950s the Center’s History of the Texas Oil Industry Project included the taping of oral history interviews with those who worked in oil boom towns during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. The flu, which killed over half a million Americans, was particularly virulent in oil towns because they lacked adequate medical care facilities and the lives of workers were not always valued by their managers. One of the workers, Fred Jennings, who lived and worked east of Houston, recalled his boss telling him, “You kill a man; you hire another. You kill a mule and you have to buy another.” The project’s interviewees recall horrifying scenes of funeral caskets piled at railroad depots, but they also include heartening tales about local efforts to help the sick and needy. The center has made some of these interviews available online. You can learn more here.
While the flu raged in the oil fields, it was successfully contained in the city of Austin and here on the UT campus. Much like today, the city declared an emergency and prohibited public gatherings. The university closed temporarily, and a number of buildings were converted into makeshift hospital wards. College dormitories implemented social distancing strategies while the administration issued guidelines, directives, and even the occasional admonishment. When campus reopened in the spring of 1919, students had their temperatures taken every day and classrooms were aired out overnight. Thousands died in Austin, but both the university and the city were mostly spared the worst of a pandemic. You can learn more about these materials here.
As with other collections at the center, these resources help to illustrate the enduring value of the study of history. It is this cause to which the Briscoe Center, and those who research in its collections, are dedicated. Unfortunately, the Briscoe Center’s reading room, exhibits, and museum divisions remain temporarily closed. This policy is aligned with that of the University’s administration, which will announce plans for the fall semester by the end of June. At that time, we will have a better idea what the Briscoe Center’s summer and fall will look like. In the meantime, we are working on plans to reopen in ways that safeguard our visitors and staff. As you can see from this issue of the e-news, however, the center’s work continues.
Currently, the center’s staff members are working from home and are busy completing a variety of projects that will make our collections more accessible. One of those is a comprehensive overhaul of our website. I’m excited by the progress we are making on this front, and I look forward to its unveiling in the fall. We also continue to celebrate the center’s outstanding collections through our social media channels, which soon will include a presence on Instagram in addition to Facebook and Twitter. Furthermore, despite the center’s facilities being closed to the public, we continue to announce new collections, such as the Ben Martin Photographic Archive. Ben Martin had a knack for communicating the candid humanity of high-profile subjects, be it Jackie Kennedy’s sorrow at her husband’s funeral or Richard Nixon’s haggard look during the 1960 presidential debates. Many thanks are due to Kathryn Leigh Scott, Ben’s former wife and publishing partner, who donated the archive.
Not only does the center’s work continue—so does yours. Our reference services team remains available to assist you remotely, including for duplication requests. More information can be found here. You can also still access the center’s digital media repository, which contains over 150,000 photographs, letters, recordings, and other materials that are available for online research. In addition, each collection at the center has a finding aid—a detailed box-by-box inventory of its contents. We’ve spent several years digitizing these resources and organizing them into a searchable online portal. The portal is a great way to hone in on specific material relevant to your research focus—and get a head start on knowing what you want to look through when we welcome researchers back later in the year.
My very best to you, your families, and your friends at this difficult time. Be Safe and Stay Well.
Don Carleton, Ph.D.
J. R. Parten Chair in the Archives of American History