The death of the iconic advice columnist Dear Abby this week at the age of 94 reminded me that Senator Byrd’s archive contains a copy of a letter she wrote to Senator Byrd in 1978, when he appeared on the cover of TIME magazine as the Majority Leader of the Senate. Abby thought the Senator looked really good on the cover of TIME.
Whether it is a lighthearted item like the one from Pauline Phillips (Abby’s real name), a heartfelt birthday greeting from Ted Kennedy, a letter from a President of the United States, a speech on the floor of the Senate, or a letter from a constituent in West Virginia, it is all a part of American history and we feel honored to help preserve it and to make it available to the public.
This week the Byrd Center achieved a milestone in our ongoing work on the Senator’s voluminous archive. We have completed a finding aid, an index, to his legislative files covering 57 years from the 83rd to the 111thCongress. The printed finding aid is 522 pages long. It describes the contents of 1,800 boxes of letters and documents down to the subject matter in each folder. This finding aid makes it possible to say that the Robert C. Byrd archive is now open to researchers. You can use the finding aid online right now.
This project has been directed by the Byrd Center’s archivist Marc Levitt who has done a first class job reigning in a vast amount of information. He led the archival team, with the assistance of Lilly Phipps, the Center’s office manager and assistant archivist. They built on the earlier work of archivists at the Center, Suni Johnson, and Keith Alexander. But we are especially proud of the fact that a number of Shepherd University history students have participated in this project as interns and gained hands-on experience in discovering the excitement and rewards of seeing history up close and personal. Several of our student interns have gone on to get advanced degrees in archival and information science and are now working in these fields. Two are working at historical societies, and Lilly Phipps began as a student intern and is now a full time staff member since her graduation from Shepherd. Current interns Heidi Carbaugh and Jody Brumage have done great work in the archives and have mastered skills and experience that should benefit them later in their chosen careers.
We have not fully completed the work of processing Senator Byrd’s papers but I am pleased to say that under Marc Levitt’s direction we are making great strides. We still need to process thousands of photographs, artifacts, audio tapes, 800 reels of microfilm records, and electronic records, including 1.5 million emails. Work is well along in all these areas. This rich archive is about Senator Byrd, but mostly it is about the history and politics of his era, and a great deal of what we have is the voices of citizens of West Virginia and other parts of the country who wrote to Senator Byrd and candidly told him their stories.