ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Writing a biography is detective work of the most painstaking kind. The literary sleuth must sift through both the momentous and the minutiae to solve the puzzle of his subject’s life.
That’s why Santa Fe author James McGrath Morris spends so much of his time in the Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico’s Zimmerman Library.
Morris is writing a biography of the late Tony Hillerman, journalist, University of New Mexico journalism professor and author of the popular mystery novel series featuring Navajo tribal policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Hillerman’s papers are at the center.
“I am usually there once a week when I’m in the state,” Morris, 64, said. “They have all the drafts of his novels. All the correspondence with agents and editors are there and are quite revealing. All the contracts are there, all the notes on his books. There are family photos.”
“We have New Mexico maps, almost any kind of map – Spanish colonial, Latin America, the Southwest, the West,” said Tomas Jaehn (pronounced “yen”), the Hamburg, Germany, native and UNM history Ph.D in charge of the university’s Center for Southwest Research and Special Collections.
Jaehn, 63, director of the center for three years, was in a large room filled with metal shelves, burdened with boxes and document cases, and metal storage cabinets. Some of the cabinets have oversized drawers to accommodate maps; UNM building plans through the years; placards such as a collection of social, cultural and political posters from Central and South America; and film posters that have been donated to the university.
“We have students who like films and not necessarily films from (New Mexico or the Southwest),” Jaehn said.
This room is one of two – both about 7,700 square feet – filled with a dizzying array of subject matter. Printed materials focus on the history, literature and culture of New Mexico and the Southwest from hundreds of years ago up until now.
Included are the original 1610 edition of Gaspar Pérez de Villagra’s “Historia de la Nueva Mexico,” an epic poem about Juan de Oñate’s colonization of New Mexico; and a copy of Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett’s book “The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid,” which came out in 1862, the year after Garrett fatally shot the Kid in Fort Sumner.
Collected and organized here are the manuscripts and papers, complete or partial, of authors Rudolfo Anaya, Conrad Richter, Peggy Pond Church, John Nichols, Denise Chavez, Jack Schaefer, Demetria Martinez, Eugene Manlove Rhodes, Erna Fergusson and Frank Waters; political figures Albert B. Fall, Manuel Lujan and Jeff Bingaman; columnist Ernie Pyle; gunman, lawman, lawyer and politician Elfego Baca; and many others.
CSWR also encompasses the UNM Archives, 3,000 linear feet of records documenting the university’s history, and the John Gaw Meems archives of Southwestern architecture.
“The most used collections,” Jaehn said, “are Chicano history and literature and Spanish colonial New Mexico.”
The aggregation of information goes beyond New Mexico and the American Southwest, however. Latin American materials make up another major strength and include history, literature, travel narratives, grammars, dictionaries, cookbooks and reproductions of Mesoamerican manuscripts.
“Special Collections covers rare materials, often first edition American and English literature, medieval documents, specialty books and book art,” Jaehn said.
These rare materials include a 1755 edition of Samuel Johnson’s “Dictionary”; a 1595 edition of Abraham Ortelius’ “Theatrum Orbis Terrarum,” considered the first modern atlas and a milestone in the history of map making; Victorian dime novels; 20th-century science fiction magazines; and examples of book art such as fore-edge paintings in which scenes are painted on the edges of a book’s pages.
And on and on. All of it is open not only to UNM students and faculty but to scholars, researchers and writers from everywhere and the general public, too. Donations, items bequeathed in wills and purchases, some made with endowments, have all played a role in creating the collection.
“I build it so they will come,” Jaehn said, borrowing a line from the 1989 fantasy-baseball film “Field of Dreams.” “Some of it will never be used. Some of it will be used in 100 years. Some of it will be used tomorrow.”
The Anderson Reading Room, named for late U.S. Sen. Clinton P. Anderson of New Mexico, is the heart of CSWR. Here, collection materials are requested and reviewed by patrons. Materials may not be reserved in advance, but Jaehn suggests that researchers use CSWR’s online resources to identify ahead of time what parts of the collection they need.
“What we don’t want is ‘I want to see all 19 boxes for Albert Fall,'” he said.
CSWR staff retrieve materials from closed stacks and, with the proper information, that usually requires less than 10 minutes.
Biographer Morris, who has written books about newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, authors Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos and African American journalist Ethel Payne, compares CSWR favorably with the British Museum, the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library, esteemed institutions he has used in the course of his research.
“I have worked in lots of archives and this one is super,” he said. “It is very well run. There are never any boxes missing. They deliver things on time. The treatment of material is excellent. The other thing they have done really well is their user-friendly websites. They take seriously their mission of getting information to the public.”
Although firmly and efficiently entrenched in the digital age, CSWR, located in Zimmerman’s historic and magnificent West Wing, is also a nostalgic glimpse into library research of bygone eras. An old-style card catalog, no longer used, stands in meticulously-organized attention outside the Anderson Reading Room. Inside, the reading room is suffused in mellow light and furnished with wooden desks and chairs and wood and glass bookcases and surmounted by an upper-level walkway that looks as if it belongs in a Harry Potter movie.
“The center is spectacular, beautiful,” Morris said. “Even though it is web-oriented, it is a shrine to documents, a shrine to paper.”