By Elizabeth Riordan, Graduate Assistant
Last fall, Special Collections became the new home for the Tom Brokaw papers, a collection that covers the life and career of a man who was welcomed into the homes of millions of Americans through NBC Today and Nightly News. The collection contains various aspects of his life, from appointment books to photos to letters from the White House. While the collection arrived pretty well organized and in good condition, there was work that needed to be done to get it ready for public viewing.
That is where I come in. I was hired in the spring of 2017 as the Graduate Research Assistant to work on the papers of Mr. Brokaw. My job is to make sure all the materials are properly stored in archival containers, sorted for easy access, and described online in a finding aid for anyone who wishes to look.
Several people have inquired about seeing the collection and want to know when it will be open for research. Well, at this point in time I am still processing the collection. For those of you who are eager to start looking at the collection now, there is a small display of objects in Special Collections’ Reading Room. Until the whole collection is ready, I thought it would be nice to share with those interested what is happening with the collection now.
The biggest priority is getting items properly stored in acid-free folders and removing any sticky notes or rusty paperclips from the material. As I have gone through this collection, I have removed hundreds of rusty paperclips and staples that held documents together. As odd as it sounds, rust can damage more than just metal, but can harm paper material as well.
Okay, so that may not seem very glamorous, and may even sound tedious, but it is important. However, the thing I’m most proud of so far is my work with the press badges. Brokaw saved several of his press badges, some as early as the 1960s up to President Trump’s Inauguration. Many are from history-making events, like the Reagan/Gorbachev meeting. They were originally kept in a Pan-Am bag, and soon the mass of badges morphed into a tangled beast of chains and string. Because of my master skills in detangling my own necklaces at home, it only took about 5 hours to detangle the passes and put them in individually labeled bags. I get that as you read this you may think I’m crazy for being so proud of this, but let me tell you, there is nothing more satisfying than looking at these badges all nicely ordered and in place. I suppose this strange satisfaction means I’m pursuing the right occupation, right?
I just finished with correspondence, and there is a cornucopia of names within this collection from Kennedys and Bushes to Redford and Hanks. There were also several letters from people, not famous or wealthy, who wrote Brokaw about his books on the Greatest Generation. Many of them wanted to share their own personal stories about the war, glad to have someone interested in what they had to say. Needless to say I required a box of Kleenex for this portion of processing. These letters of remembrance are tinged with sadness but also pride, they are the “Greatest Generation” after all.
What I can say to you now is the collection is worth the wait. This collection will leave you in awe of what one man has seen and reported on in his lifetime, what we as a people have experienced together over the last 50 years. When Brokaw visited the University of Iowa last fall, the United States seemed to be in free-fall with recent events. I had the chance to ask him how he could keep moving forward after seeing and reporting on so much devastation and heartbreak over his expansive career. Without any hesitation, he responded that these moments of devastation are just that, moments. More importantly, he is always amazed at how human beings have the ability to bounce back and keep moving, no matter what. This reverence he has for the human spirit resonates throughout the collection, showing us where we have been as a group and where we can go moving forward.