Buried Inside the State Archives

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AUSTIN — I am back in one of my happy places, doing research at the Lorenzo de Zavala State Archives and Library Building, located across the street from the state capitol. Busloads of school children wander around the verdant capitol grounds beneath the pecan and oak trees while squirrels chatter at them. A field trip to the capitol is a fine way to end the school year.

I first flip through the pages of an 1840 edition of the San Augustine Journal & Advertiser, a one-year run that appears to only be available in a print version at this library. Most of what I have researched has been accessible online, save for a few gaps. I am here to fill one of them. Once again, I marvel that these newspapers, tattered though they are, are still legible. I snap away with my cell phone camera, capturing articles of interest that I will transcribe later. The research librarian, a pleasant young woman, and I chat since I am the only one in the room. I tell her I work half-time as a reference librarian and sometimes wonder if I missed my calling.

Later, I go across the corridor to the room that contains the microfilm readers and request some reels of newspapers from the 1830s and 1840s. This is needle-in-the-haystack research, slowly scanning each faded page for mention of the San Augustine Red-Lander, the fabled Republic of Texas newspaper that is the focus of my research and future Book Hardly Anyone Will Read. (The aforementioned Journal & Advertiser was the immediate predecessor to The Red-Lander and was owned by the same fellow, A.W. Canfield.) There is no way to search a reel of microfilm, so I stare at the screen for hours, scanning each four-page edition for articles copied from The Red-Lander, a common practice back then.

I began doing this type of research in 1986, both at the state library and the Briscoe Center of American History on the UT-Austin campus, working on my master’s thesis. Back then, as I looked at printed copies or microfilm, my only choices were transcribing straight from the page or microfilm screen, or paying 10 cents a sheet to print out articles of interest. I would get out the latest issue of the San Augustine Rambler, the weekly I published, get up early the next morning and drive 265 miles to Austin to spend as much time as I could doing research. The shot clock was running out on completing my thesis in the allotted time. I managed to get the thesis finished in time to get my master’s. Being back here at the state library brings it full circle in my mind.

At some point in the 1980s, I bought a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100, known popularly in newsrooms as a Trash 80. It was an eight-line display laptop. I thought it was wonderful at the time. I would fill it with transcribed articles, drive home, hook it up to my Mac with a cable, and transfer the information. While the Trash 80 had a fraction of the computing power of my iPhone, it sure saved me a lot of time.

Microfilm readers have come a long way as well. Whenever I find an article worth saving, I lasso it digitally and save it a thumb drive as a pdf. No paying for printing. I can then return home, transfer the files to the iMac and start transcribing.

The only problem, I discover after rummaging through the laptop bag, is that I forgot to bring a thumb drive. This required a six-block stroll down Congress Avenue to a CVS store, a walk during which four separate people panhandled me, without success. One guy asked for a dollar so he could get cigarettes.

Back at the library, I spend the rest of the afternoon saving articles to the thumb drive, with a large note printed and stuck in the hatband of my straw fedora, propped on top of the microfilm reader: THUMB DRIVE. The last thing I need to do is forget to take it with me. Written reminders and lists of things to do are part of the aging process, I suppose.


I return the next morning to finish looking at microfilm, then walk to the parking garage to head home, a five-hour drive. This should be the final research trip for this project. Soon it will be time to write.


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