Through this Thursday, William Travis’ 1836 “victory or death” letter is on display at the Alamo in San Antonio. Returned for the first time to the site where it was penned, the Travis letter is protected by a $20,000 display case, black curtains and temporary AC units.
But these measures aren’t enough to protect a relic that holds this much historical significance. So not far from the letter, during every minute of public display, representatives from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission in Austin are taking turns keeping watch. Just in case.
I met two of these archivists-turned-guards recently, during a visit to the Lorenzo de Zavala State Library and Archives Building near the Capitol Building. It’s safe to say that guard duty wasn’t part of the job description when John Anderson and Laura Saegert became archivists for the State of Texas over three decades ago. Although they’re filling an unusual role now, I believe their motivation has remained constant throughout their notable careers. John, Laura and their team members are dedicated to preserving Texas history and expanding public knowledge of the treasures they preserve.
The Travis letter has definitely received a lot of public exposure recently, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Open since 1961, the Lorenzo de Zavala Building holds 40,000 cubic feet of additional archives, as well as a number of artifacts that will blow your mind.
Our Visit to the Texas State Library and Archives Building
I had never been to the Lorenzo de Zavala State Library and Archives Building. Parking in the Capitol Visitors Garage, I walked a short block to 1201 Brazos St.
Passing through a grand colonnade, I entered a hushed lobby. A receptionist sat behind a long counter in front of me. Museum-quality exhibits filled the space behind and beside me. And behind glass walls, two stories high on each side of the lobby, I could see extensive library and research space.
I was greeted by Communications Officer Cesar Garza. As Cesar walked us through the exhibit space in the lobby, we were joined by John Anderson and Laura Saegart. John is a Preservation Officer who specializes as a photo archivist and has been at Lorenzo de Zavala for 35 years. Laura is the Assistant Director for Archives, specializing as a map archivist. She has worked at Lorenzo de Zavala for 31 years.
When our hosts offered to take us to see the “good stuff,” we didn’t hesitate. Submerging a few floors by elevator, we walked past rows of boxed archives until we reached the Commission’s collection of historic flags. What we saw was amazing.
Protected by crystal clear glass, we viewed a huge cotton flag that belonged to the 6th Texas Battalion (Gould’s Battalion), the only Confederate division comprised of troops from a single state. Only 100 of the original 525 members were still living at the end of the Civil War.
The Mexican flags at Lorenzo de Zavala are also remarkable. The Guerrero Battalion flag was captured during the Battle of San Jacinto. According to the State Library and Archives Commission:
“The flag was displayed in 1846 during the ceremony marking the annexation of Texas to the United States. It remained in the custody of the Texas Adjutant General’s office, and was displayed for some years at the headquarters of the Frontier Battalion, the famed force of Texas Rangers that fought outlaws and Indians on the frontier from 1874-1900.”
After our jaw-dropping flag experience, John pulled opened huge drawers in a custom storage case to show us the original blueprints for the Capitol Building. Amazing! Did you know that there was originally supposed to be a portico around the exterior of the Capitol? It was likely left off for budgetary reasons.
What Can the Public See?
The general public can go no further than the large lobby of the Lorenzo de Zavala State Library and Archives Building. Before you hang your head in disappointment and stop reading, wait a second!
First off, the Commission works hard to curate unique exhibits for their lobby. They’re currently displaying the story behind the Texas Legation Papers, which Sam Houston was supposed to take to Austin…but ended up taking to his home in Huntsville. Passed down from generation to generation, the papers remained hidden for more than a century. Rumor has it that they were discovered in a Tweety Bird gym bag!
The Legation Papers exhibit will be up until approximately August 31, 2013. The next planned exhibit revolves around the JFK assassination, and you definitely won’t want to miss that one.
If that’s not enough to sate your hunger for Texas history (and I hope it isn’t!), you’ll be happy to know that the Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC) is one of the biggest lenders to the Bob Bullock Museum. The Commission is currently designing an exhibit for the Bullock around the 125th anniversary of the Capitol Building. Among other things, visitors will be able to see gigantic linen architect drawings of the Capitol that are rarely displayed in public.
And then there’s the incredible website that TSLAC curates for your enjoyment and education. The interface may be simple, but the wealth of information is unbelievable. This website really is your portal into the State Library and Archives Building. You may not be able to see the real archives and artifacts in person like we did, but the website is the next best thing. TSLAC even designs online exhibits that cover topics like “Fear, Force and Leather: Texas Prison System’s First 100 Years” and “To Love the Beautiful: The Story of Texas State Parks.”
Connect with the Texas State Library and Archives Commission
TSLAC has an impressive social media presence. They were just recognized by the Austin-American Statesman as a winner of the 2013 Social Media Awards. Beyond Facebook and Twitter, TSLAC is currently facilitating “Picture Texas with TSLAC,” an opportunity for you to submit photos that capture the spirit of Texas.
Everyone at the Lorenzo de Zavala State Library and Archives Building is providing an immeasurable service to the people of Texas. If you’re a student or a lover of history, I encourage you to get acquainted with the resources they provide, and share them with your friends! History lives through us and our efforts to study it and communicate it with others.
Did you realize how much history the Lorenzo de Zavala Building holds?