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Campus News
Your faculty and staff news since 1965
Current Issue:  March 25, 2002
Volume 37, Number 17

New Mexico Political Archive brings history to life

By Carolyn Gonzales

Non-descript brown and white boxes disguise the treasures inside. Lift the lid and the smell of history rises from within. Look closely and see lively debate, conflict and controversy come to life in photographs and papers that stop time in its tracks and give researchers firsthand information about New Mexico’s colorful past.

For two decades, the idea brewed in the UNM General Library about creating a political papers program. So many collections were in hand– papers of Governors Toney Anaya and Jerry Apodaca and those of Representative Steve Schiff and Senator Harrison Schmitt, and more, but the library had limited resources and personnel to provide oversight or to process collections. Until now.

Rose DiazRose Díaz, research historian for the UNM General Library, is charged to care for, maintain, track and process an array of collections in the newly created UNM New Mexico Political Archive (NMPA). NMPA operates out of the old Elks Building on University Blvd., next to Continuing Education, because of the need for space to house, organize and process such extensive collections.

Aaron Boecha, anthropology graduate student, processes architectural drawings included in the political archives. Photo by Carolyn Gonzales“We have 4,200 cubic feet of materials from elected or appointed officials that currently represent individual political participation in 20th century national, state and local politics,” she says of collections that are a part of the Center for Southwest Research (CSWR), but not accessible or available for use by researchers.

Unlike the President of the United States and executive branch officials whose records are federal property, U.S. senators and representatives personally own and control records created and maintained in their offices. Libraries and public policy centers around the country vie for ownership of the original documents.

“We were concerned about what would happen to congressional papers if we didn’t get them,” Díaz says. She says they, Díaz and student workers, created a manuscript inventory. “We pulled out those collections that had been processed, including the papers of such luminaries as Senators Dennis Chavez and Clinton Anderson. Inventories for those are on file in the CSWR and on the Online Archive of New Mexico (OANM). The materials themselves are available at the center,” she says.

Díaz then looked at unprocessed collections. Many were in storage, representing hundreds of boxes of documents chronicling the careers of the likes of Joseph Montoya and Pete Domenici. “We identified the collections and determined the size,” she says. Most collections consist of box after box filling up a range of shelving.

“We also created a list to match what we have against what’s out there that we might need to acquire to fill in gaps historically,” Díaz says. They also questioned how they were going to define the collection. “We decided to include not just elected and appointed officials, but also those prominent in political circles, such as Franz Huning,” she says. “He exerted influence and was well connected politically.”

With a goal to preserve basic information necessary for research on economic, social and political issues, Díaz recognizes that personal papers document historical discussions and context while remaining important to the cultural memory of New Mexicans. And not all political papers are from individuals.

The federal government spent a lot of money in New Mexico through the years and it was channeled into the state through Indian Affairs. Collections from Indian Affairs, the U.S. Pueblo Lands Board, oral histories, and more chronicle politics, economics and even personal histories.

“We have five boxes from Glenn Emmons, superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Indian records are tied to political periods. We may not have everything, but what we have is representative historically,” Díaz says.

Community histories, files from the League of Women Voters and the New Mexico Democratic State Central Committee are included. “Two years ago, we didn’t see the complete picture – there were gaps – we are looking for collections to answer many questions,” she says.
Díaz soon realized that in order to make the collection manageable, she needed to focus. “Twentieth century New Mexico is well represented by state and federal officials. We decided to focus on them and the modern political period,” she says.

Díaz developed a proposal so that people could see the potential in working on these papers as a collective unit. Materials were in three remote storage facilities as well as in the Zimmerman Library basement and the old annex. Díaz learned that the library’s annex, located at the old Volkswagen building, was to be demolished to put up a building for health sciences, and the Elks Building was identified as a site for the collection. Adequate temporary storage space, security, good environmental controls, and areas to process the collections were all there.

“While the focus is on poltical papers, other projects or portions of three collections can be processed at one time,” she says. One such collection being processed is the Hal Dean architectural collection. In addition to 92 boxes of materials, drawings and other unboxed items are part of the collection. “We also have 600 tubes of architectural drawings,” Díaz says. Those require special handling because they have been rolled up for so long. They are flattened and damage is repaired and they’re documented in terms of what building the drawing represents, time frame and other detail. “Such unique collections require a large space allocation to adequately prepare and handle the materials,” she adds.

The aim, says Díaz, is to provide a first-rate program to meet the instructional and curriculum needs of UNM while promoting advanced and sophisticated research on the national political process.

Political archives traditionally have a “history of neglect,” says Díaz. “Ours is an aggressive project to create a model program for other agencies and institutions to follow regarding the official and personal papers of elected and appointed officials.”

Once completed, the collections will once again be housed and accessible through the library’s Center for Southwest Research and promoted through OANM, Díaz says.

Training in oral history offered

In addition to archival work, Díaz provides groups with workshops and training. As an oral historian, she recently trained a group of 50 Albuquerque High School students to conduct oral history interviews. Their school project is to interview World War II veterans. “I also teach them how to do research and how to place oral histories in their context.”

Similar projects, funded by the Center for Regional Studies, will allow her to train budding oral historians. One group is collecting information from Bataan veterans, another group from the New Mexico Jewish Historical Society, received training for their Pioneer Oral Video Project.

The New Mexico Historical Society came recently to look at the collections. “We provide a unique community outreach opportunity. People love to come visit and learn about UNM’s projects and programs,” she says.