Director Steve Maxner says Texas Tech University is the right place to tell our nation’s incredible story of honorable, selfless service during the Vietnam War.
Thirty years ago, military history professor Jim Reckner – a two-tour Navy veteran of the Vietnam War – found himself lacking the materials to properly teach his students about the conflict. He didn't just want the names and dates, the cold facts and faceless details that could never fully express how the wartime deaths and political decisions had traumatized the country; he wanted firsthand accounts that could give students a look into the actual experiences of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam and their loved ones waiting at home.
He reached out to local veterans and supporters to see what they were willing to share. What he received were the first pieces in what has now become the world-renowned Texas Tech University Vietnam Center & Sam Johnson Vietnam Archive (VNCA).
"The first archive collection received in 1989 included a set of letters written by Dan Siewert, a local Vietnam veteran and Texas Tech alumnus who served as a Navy corpsman with U.S. Marines near Khe Sanh in 1967," said Steve Maxner, director of the VNCA. "The first set of books donated included a popular Time-Life series on the Vietnam War, donated by Phil Price, also a local Vietnam veteran and Texas Tech alumnus who served as a U.S. Army Mechanized Infantry Platoon Leader near Pleiku in 1969. From those humble beginnings, we have grown into the largest, nongovernmental archive on the Vietnam War in the world with approximately 30 million pages of archival materials and more than 30,000 volumes in our library holdings."
In the last three decades, the collection has expanded exponentially, but with such growth always comes growing pains – namely, finding space for it all. With materials now divided among three separate locations, Texas Tech is well on its way to creating the kind of facility that can both display and preserve such a world-class collection. But there's still progress to be made.
Several important developments have helped expand the VNCA's holdings. Chief among them was funding from the state of Texas. That provided an operating budget to purchase the necessary archival supplies, allowed it to hire full-time faculty and staff and supported its extensive outreach to veterans around the country, inviting them to preserve their legacies of wartime service by donating personal materials.
The addition of the VNCA's annual conference and symposium series has highlighted what Reckner wanted from the beginning – both academic scholarship and the real-world, firsthand experiences of veterans and other wartime participants.
"Of equal importance, the creation of the Virtual Vietnam Archive greatly increased national and international awareness of our project, allowing us to digitize and provide free online access to an ever-expanding set of historical materials from our collections," Maxner said, noting the Virtual Archive now includes more than 10 million pages of material. "As a result, veterans, their families and other wartime participants have the benefit of knowing their treasured materials are not only being properly preserved in a state-of-the-art archival facility, but their collections also are made much more widely available to an international audience of students, researchers, scholars, veterans and the public."
As the collection expanded, however, it grew out of its space – not once, but twice.
"Currently, VNCA collections are housed in three locations on the Texas Tech campus," Maxner said. "Our primary archival storage is located within the Southwest Collections/Special Collections Library (SWC/SCL). We have additional archival storage in a section of the Mathematics & Statistics building, which was the previous location for the Texas Tech Library. We also have large artifact and material storage in a central warehouse facility at Texas Tech, where we store four helicopters along with spare parts and other large materials.
"When combined with administrative spaces, the VNCA currently uses approximately 17,000 square feet of space."
One of the difficulties this presents, especially for researchers seeking specific materials in the VNCA, is there may be a delay in making those items available for them. And the more obscure the request, the longer it can take.
"To safeguard and protect our collections, researchers are required to use the reading room in the SWC/SCL, which has controlled access with rather strict rules regarding what researchers can take in with them when conducting research," Maxner said. "Our archive material storage plan is based on the historic use of our collections. As a result, we strategically store lesser-used collections in the math building and maintain easier access to our more popular collections in the SWC/SCL.
"In the event a researcher needs access to materials in the math building, we try to coordinate retrieval ahead of their visit whenever possible to facilitate faster access. Otherwise, there is a longer wait time for researchers who request those materials without any prior coordination. Regardless of the storage location, we do all we can to retrieve materials requested as quickly as possible."
Eventually, the VNCA will be housed entirely within one facility. That may sound vague and distant, but that eventuality is much closer than it appears.
"This has long been a goal for the VNCA, going back to the early 1990s," Maxner said. "Jim Reckner's first plans focused mostly on having an archive building that included archive processing and storage, research and classroom spaces. Those plans have grown over the years and, given the ongoing donations of museum artifacts to our collections, we have added a Museum of the Vietnam War to our plans. This has progressed well beyond the initial idea stage and has become much more concrete over the past few years."
The planned facility will house the Vietnam Center, the Sam Johnson Vietnam Archive and the Museum of the Vietnam War. To that end, The VNCA has received a private donation of $400,000, along with funding from university leadership, and the Board of Regents designated nine acres of land on campus where the new facility will be constructed. The VNCA has coordinated with Facilities Planning & Construction and contracted with the architectural firm Voorsanger Mathes to develop initial architectural designs and renderings, museum renderings and a fundraising video.
The VNCA is working closely with Texas Tech leaders – especially those in Institutional Advancement, Facilities Planning & Construction, the Office of the President, the College of Arts & Sciences and the Institute for Peace & Conflict – and other stakeholders and supporters in the community and around the nation to raise the funds needed to accomplish the ambitious and important project. They need $25 million for the building itself and a $10 million endowment to cover operating costs.
"We also are working very closely with Mr. Jan Scruggs, a Vietnam veteran who founded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and built the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.," Maxner said. "We will organize a visit of Mr. Scruggs to Texas Tech in the coming months to include a public lecture where he can share his incredible story of building a memorial in our nation's capital that has been instrumental in helping veterans and their families heal from that war."
It's a project Maxner is excited to see come to fruition.
"For the past three decades, we have been collecting and preserving the history of the Vietnam War," he said. "During that time, we have focused on and worked very closely with our nation's Vietnam veterans and their families to tell their stories with the honor, dignity and respect they deserve. Given our project's history of success and the profound commitment and support from Texas Tech and the state of Texas for the past 30 years, we think our university is the right place for our nation to have a world-class facility that tells this incredible story of honorable, selfless service during the Vietnam War.
"When completed, the Museum of the Vietnam War at Texas Tech will become a national beacon for Vietnam veterans and their families to visit Lubbock so they can participate in our legacy programs and enjoy the incredible warmth and hospitality of Texas Tech, Lubbock and West Texas."