Byrd archive opens for research

SHEPHERDSTOWN – A newly opened archive at Shepherd University offers an unprecedented level of insight into the life, politics and beliefs of the nation’s longest-serving senator.

It took archivist Marc Levitt, along with his colleague Lily Phipps and a host of interns, almost 2 1/2 years to organize into a usable form a significant portion of the papers belonging to late U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd.

Last week, the Shepherdstown archivists unveiled their crowning achievement: a 522-page index to help researchers find documents relevant to a variety of topics. A copy of the index is also available online.

The late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd

The late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd

The team also produced an electronically searchable database that will offer researchers looking for specific information an even greater ability to seek out documents covering specific research topics.

The process was painstaking, Levitt said

“When Senator Byrd passed away in office 2 1/2 years ago, we had everything here within 60 days. Then we began processing the papers.”

With the organization of Byrd’s papers related to his time in the Senate – correspondence with constituents, other senators and research into proposed bills – Levitt estimates that between a 1/3 and three-fifths of Byrd’s papers will now be available for examination by appointment. Levitt and his team will now move on to organizing the other “series” in the collection.

“We’re still going through the papers,” he said. “The majority of the papers are now open, but we are still going through several other series – these are basically categories of an archival collection.”

The largest of these remaining series deals with public projects Byrd undertook.

The archive also has a large collection of physical objects, including portraits of Byrd and his late wife Erma. These will also eventually be organized by the archive.

Levitt said Byrd decided to house his papers at Shepherd University because the location allowed him to access them easily when he was in Washington.

“My understanding is that the papers originally went to West Virginia University, but when he wanted to do research using his papers that was simply too far for him to go from Washington, D.C.,” he said. “The idea was that he would be able to come to where his papers were to do research.”

Levitt said that spending months pouring over a mountain of Byrd’s documents has been eye-opening, revealing many aspects of the man about which he was previously unaware.

“I didn’t know a lot about Senator Byrd – I’m originally from Michigan – when I started, but I learned a lot about Byrd in general. He was a very interesting man, a scholar and a historian,” he said, adding for him it was interesting to watch Byrd’s transformation from the personwho came into office in 1953 to the senator he had become more than half a century later.

“One of the more striking things was his change in stances toward war from Vietnam to Iraq, where he was one of just a few who voted against the war,” he said. “Seeing that evolution, not only seeing him be reflective on changing times, but really looking at himself and determining how his values had changed.”

Levitt said one of Byrd’s biggest concerns was how silent the Senate was when it was declaring war on Iraq. He said that was the place where the issues were supposed to be argued and discussed, and not having any discussion was a disservice not only to the Constitution but to the chamber.”

The archive is open both to academic researchers and to the general public, though there are a number of restrictions in place that are designed to preserve the integrity of the original documents. Archival documents can be viewed only in a special viewing room, and only by appointment.

“The only things you can bring in are a digital camera and a laptop,” Levitt said. “There is a lot of personal information in these files. Users agree in a conditions of use form not to publish any material that contains personal information [about individuals other than Byrd]. It’s one of the things we need to do to protect constituents who wrote into him, and we take it very seriously.”

The Byrd Center expects to hold a grand opening for the archives in April.

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