UI graduate student spent nearly a year preparing papers and artifacts from renowned NBC News journalist
Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The items run from the mundane to the fascinating: appointment books and rocks from the Great Wall of China; contracts and a press badge from the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana; a high school yearbook and a Pan Am bag.

The Papers of Tom Brokaw: A Life & Career fills more than 90 boxes, and Elizabeth Riordan pored over every single paper and artifact—some more than once. The University of Iowa School of Library and Information Sciences graduate student from Des Moines, Iowa, spent the better part of the last year preparing the collection, which will become accessible to the public Feb. 1, 2018.

“Her knowledge of this collection is second to none,” says Greg Prickman, head of the Department of Special Collections at UI Libraries.

The Papers of Tom Brokaw: A Life & Career

What: Brokaw, one of the world’s most renowned and decorated journalists, attended the UI during his first year of college, from 1958–59, and donated his papers and artifacts to the UI Libraries in November 2016.

Where: Special Collections, University of Iowa Main Library

Use: Materials in Special Collections are available for the research needs of students, faculty, staff, and general public. All materials are housed in a controlled environment and, generally, can be used only in the Special Collections Department Reading Room. Find out more.

Finding aid: http://aspace.lib.uiowa.edu/repositories/2/resources/2700

Brokaw, one of the world’s most renowned and decorated journalists, attended the UI during his first year of college, from 1958–59, and donated his papers and artifacts to the UI Libraries in November 2016. That a student would be put in charge of such an important collection may seem unusual, but Prickman says giving students such experiences is an intrinsic part of the UI’s mission.

“My hope is always that at the end of their time working with a collection and as a student at this institution, they’re going to get a job, they’re going to be qualified, and they’re going to have experience under their belt that other institutions are going to find desirable,” Prickman says. “Experience is the first thing we look for when hiring for these jobs. You learn by doing.”

Riordan agrees. “A lot of this is trial and error for me. I redid one of the first sections I worked on because looking back at it, I thought, ‘I can do this better.’ I had read about what processing is, but you don’t know it until you do it. There’s no better way to learn something than by putting your hands on it.”

grad student working on brokaw collection
University of Iowa School of Library and Information Sciences graduate student Elizabeth Riordan gets high-profile, hands-on experience working with Tom Brokaw collection. Photo by Tim Schoon.  

A one-time gift specified for use on the Brokaw collection paid for Riordan’s one-year salary. She started in April 2017, and her first task was to organize the collection—which at times meant removing hundreds of rusty paperclips from documents and spending five hours detangling press badges from decades of world events. While the items were fairly well grouped and labeled, thanks to Brokaw’s assistants over the years, there was still work to be done.

“My first concern is always, ‘How does a researcher approach this? Is it accessible?’ I want to make sure people can find what they need,” Riordan says. “You’re sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place because you want to keep the original order as much as possible. The hardest part was figuring out whether to put something in this grouping or that grouping. For one event, you might have a press badge, photos, and written material. Everything fits together, but elements sometimes are scattered throughout the series.”

While most collections make their way to the UI after a person has died, the fact that Brokaw is alive and still working presented a few benefits in processing the collection. Riordan and Prickman say that being able to ask Brokaw or Geri Jansen, his assistant of more than 30 years, questions about specific items was invaluable.

For example, among the items was a handbook that Riordan says on the surface didn’t appear important. However, Brokaw explained that it was a document he created that changed how news organizations report on elections.

“You do wonder what people are going to make of this stuff when it’s no longer in the context of Tom’s living experience,” Prickman says. “Because every single thing in these boxes, you can see what it is, but until he starts talking you don’t realize necessarily what it represents.”

tom brokaw and craig melvin in UI classroom
Tom Brokaw visits the UI Main Library to film a segment for Today about his papers, which are housed in Special Collections. With Brokaw is Craig Melvin, NBC correspondent and anchor. Photo by Tim Schoon.  

The collection includes hundreds of photos, and while the majority included some type of description, not all did.

“I wanted to at least give a timeframe for the photo,” Riordan says. “Geri can tell the year of the photo based on Tom’s hair. Now, after so much time looking at these photos, while I can’t give the exact year, I have a rough idea.”

The last months of 2017 were spent creating the collection’s “finding aid,” which Riordan likened to an online tour guide. Basically, it’s an index meant to help researchers determine the contents of each box. The amount of detail contained in a finding aid varies from collection to collection, but Riordan says the finding aid for the Brokaw collection is more detailed than most because the collection is expected to receive heavy use.

“It’s getting a bit of the deluxe treatment,” Riordan says.

While more details may be included in this finding aid than most, it still sticks to the basics.

“Typically, we don’t interpret collections,” Prickman says. “Our job is to make them accessible and help people use them, but their job is to figure out what these things are and what they mean. It’s raw material. Two people will look at the same thing and reach different conclusions, and that’s scholarship.”

Riordan likens it to the difference between a museum and an archive.

“With a museum, things are laid out for you,” Riordan says. “With archives, you have to discover your own adventure. You have to paw around yourself and discover your own things, and that’s what makes it exciting.”

Riordan predicts that people studying history and political science will be most interested in the collection. Among items in the collection are correspondence from political leaders such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and former presidents dating back to Richard Nixon. Brokaw’s work also presents a unique window into many important events of the past half-century, such as being the first journalist to broadcast live during the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“The collection shows how cyclical history is, for better or for worse,” Riordan says. “And it can be reassuring at times. He (Brokaw) has seen the worst of humanity and the best of humanity. He has documented wars, catastrophes, and scandals, and we’re still here. We’re resilient.”

Brokaw writing from special collection
Tom Brokaw wrote this piece on July 20, 1969, the day humankind first set foot on the moon. (Click image to enlarge.)

As for Riordan’s favorite part of the collection?

“I’m sentimental. It’s a bunch of letters Brokaw got in response to his book The Greatest Generation,” Riordan says. “People wrote to him with their own stories. They told him, ‘I didn’t know who else to talk to. I read your book and finally feel comfortable enough to say this.’ I was crying the whole time I worked on this section. People would come in and I’d have to wipe away tears and tell them I was OK.”

She also enjoys items from early in Brokaw’s career.

“You get to see a young Brokaw before he realizes what he’s going to become,” Riordan says. “He was fascinated with the moon landing in 1969. He wrote this prose piece, or maybe it’s more of a poem. He keeps repeating, ‘And where am I?’ I feel like it’s him saying, ‘There are men on the moon right now. What am I doing?’ And we know what he does with his life and that he’s going to be just fine.”

The Brokaw collection isn’t yet complete. Prickman says some boxes are still in New York, and the collection will grow as Brokaw continues to enjoy a particularly productive phase of his career. While Riordan likely will not work on all of those items, she says she’s grateful for the time she’s had with the collection.

“Working in Special Collections alone is amazing, and then to have the chance to really dive in to a specific collection and be part of all of it—seeing the evolution of a collection is a remarkable experience,” Riordan says.