Building on state history 

Library Director Bobby Roberts constructs an instant treasure.

PAGES OF TIME: Glass parcels at the entrance to the ASI include photographs of Arkansas figures.
  • PAGES OF TIME: Glass parcels at the entrance to the ASI include photographs of Arkansas figures.

Twelve years ago, when the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies convinced the legislature that Arkansas history should be a required subject in public school, more than a few of the teachers the Times interviewed were annoyed. The unit would just take up time better spent on more important subjects, they complained. “There is no Arkansas history,” one teacher told the Times.

The Arkansas Studies Institute, in a striking complex on Clinton Avenue that joins new construction to renovated historic buildings, turns that teacher's attitude on its head. It does so both with its contents — the papers of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the Central Arkansas Library's Butler Center for Arkansas Studies — and with its very presence.

The three-story sandstone, brick, copper and glass entry — the design playing on the pages of an open book and featuring photographs from the ASI collection reproduced on large glass panels — puts a high profile on Arkansas's regard for its past. It is a proud structure, monumental in the way government buildings of an earlier era matched their architecture to the importance of their mission.

“There's probably less written about Arkansas than any state in the union,” CALS director Bobby Roberts said on a tour of the building in March. In the past decade, however, textbooks and monographs and other Arkansas histories — including a series by Roberts and UALR historian Carl Moneyhon — have filled what was once a void. The Butler Center's Encyclopedia of Arkansas and the ASI archives — 10 million documents and photographs, the second largest manuscript collection in the state — are playing a major role in efforts to complete the picture of Arkansas's place in history. The Institute's visibility on Clinton Avenue should both invite scholars (if you want to write something new about the South, UALR archivist Linda Pine says, this is the place to start) and encourage people and institutions to donate their own records, that stuff in the attic, documents that in an earlier era might have been spirited away from Arkansas for historical repositories in other states (Roberts and Moneyhon had to travel to North Carolina to research aspects of the Civil War in Arkansas).

The state History Commission and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville have deep collections, but the ASI “marries,” as Roberts said, academic collections to community support. “Just the fact that it exists in this terrific building,” Charles Bolton, a UALR historian who has written about Arkansas, said, “is promoting Arkansas history and it will be a great place for researchers to go.”

What's there now — the gubernatorial and other papers of Winthrop Rockefeller, a huge collection; the gubernatorial papers of Bill Clinton (Butler Center head David Stricklin has his fingers crossed that the first series from those papers will be open to the public soon), Jim Guy Tucker, Dale Bumpers, Frank White, Carl Bailey. George Donaghey's papers, Chester Ashley's papers. Papers just donated by the descendants of Gov. Thomas McRae. A significant collection of Civil War letters and diaries and photographs, papers the Butler Center has actively been amassing. And other records — like those of Immanuel Baptist Church and the federal Office of Desegregation Monitoring and the Daughters of the Confederacy and Arkansas Gazette editor and owner J.N. Heiskell. All waiting to be mined.

The institute's cost — $21.5 million, most of it paid for with property-tax-backed bond issues approved by Little Rock voters — has been faulted in local publications, something that, not surprisingly, irks Roberts no end. He's especially irritated by one paper's continued reference to the Arkansas Studies Institute as a bloated project in a couple of “rundown buildings.”



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