Searching for Robert Caro at the LBJ Library

Print this entry

LBJ Library file boxLBJ LIBRARY, AUSTIN — In the Great Hall of this 10-story structure on the east side of the University of Texas campus, four floors of glass walls dominate. Encased in those four floors, in red file boxes with a gold presidential seal, are the papers of Lyndon Baines Johnson. LBJ while serving as president, vice-president, Senate majority leader and congressman pushed through more landmark legislation than any 20th-century president, with the arguable exception of Franklin Roosevelt. Among those achievements: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Medicare and Medicaid, the Higher Education Act, Head Start, and so much more. The Vietnam quagmire forever tarnished his legacy. Still, LBJ was one of the greatest presidents of the past century. At least that is my view.

I have made multiple visits here over the past four decades. Last June our family toured the current exhibit, “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Beatles!” Seeing George Harrison’s guitar from a foot away, albeit encased in plexiglass, was a spiritual experience. There is still time to visit if you are a Beatles fan.

For the first time, I am not at the library as a tourist but to do research. I want to look inside a few of those boxes, photograph a couple hundred of the 45 million pages and 650,00 photographs contained in this library. For a research nerd, this is like going on vacation.

One just can’t walk in the LBJ Library and start pawing over papers. Naturally, with four floors of file boxes, a bit of advance notice is required. A series of emails between a research librarian and me ensued, as I outlined what I was hunting. She provided a list of LBJ file boxes that I should request.

All this finally culminated, after one canceled trip due to a family emergency, in me showing up for The Interview. A research librarian made a copy of my driver’s license, while I filled out a couple pages of an application. He provided a rundown of the do’s and don’t’s: One box at a time, one file at a time. It was fine to take photos, but no flash. I have been through this drill at the Library of Congress, National Archives in Washington D.C., the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass., and virtually every research repository in this state. Research librarians take seriously their charge to preserve and protect their archived material. I am glad they do.

The Reading Room at the LBJ Library is on the 10th floor. That floor also contains the last public exhibit on the tour. The highlight is a 7/8 scale exact reproduction of how the Oval Office looked when he was president. When I grew weary of photographing correspondence between LBJ and folks involved in a battle over building a dam on the San Gabriel River in Williamson County, I would leave the Reading Room and peer into that Oval Office.

I had a faint hope of running into Robert Caro at the library, to see how he is doing on that final volume of his massive, masterful biography of Johnson. I bought the first volume in 1982. Thirty-three years, three thousand pages and three volumes later, I wait patiently for the final installment. A quick look online indicates he is getting close. It is my fervent hope that Caro lives long enough to finish this amazing work, and that I am still on this side of the dirt to read it.

I don’t ask for much these days. But Robert Caro was not there.

I have spent more than 30 years hanging out in places like this. This bad habit was launched when I wrote a master’s thesis at UT by delving into files at the neighboring Briscoe Center for American History, and the East Texas Research Center at Stephen F. Austin State University. Since then, I have come to absolutely adore research librarians. Without exception, they are eager to help, accommodating, friendly and intelligent.

They don’t get out in the sun much, for the most part.

But I cannot recall a bad experience with a research librarian. Some have gone to great lengths recently to help me, taking the time to scan documents and email them to me at no charge, so I would not have to make a six-hour round trip for a dozen or so letters.

I finished earlier than expected at the LBJ Library and left reluctantly, my brand-new blue researcher ID card in hand.

I will be back. I can’t help myself.

Print this entry

Leave a reply

Fields marked with * are required