Texas Tech University

Unboxing an Archivist

Ashlyn Grotegut

October 9, 2023

Lynn Whitfield has not just immersed herself in Texas Tech’s history. She’s become part of it after 25 years of learning and preserving her alma mater’s past.

Lynn Whitfield does not just want to understand history. 

She wants to examine items of importance, secure in her hands, to feel and experience the past for herself. 

That's why every day is like Christmas as the university archivist for Texas Tech University.

“I'll walk down the hall, and when I come back, suddenly there's five boxes that appeared out of nowhere,” she said. “And it's like, ‘Oh, I wonder what's in these boxes?”

Whitfield has gripped a 1930 marching staff once used by a member of the Goin' Band from Raiderland. She grazed the softness of a felt beanie worn more than half a century ago by a first-year student until the initial Red Raider football victory of the season. She brushed across the craftmanship of a miniature leather saddle to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Masked Rider. 

These are few among many treasures Whitfield has discovered at the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library, among the more common donations of books and photographs. It's up to her to acquire, collect and make these items and other records accessible for researchers and others interested in the growth of Texas Tech. 

“As archivist, I've gotten to explore all kinds of amazing things,” she said. “Slowly, over time, little bits of history trickle in.”

Whitfield feels a part of Texas Tech's history herself with the 30 years she has spent on campus. She is devoted to Lubbock as her home – the longest she has lived anywhere – since she spent part of her life running. 

“I joke that I can't go to another country that's going to fall to civil war,” she said, “because that would be my third time.”

Whitfield was born in Vietnam during the Vietnam War and when she was about 4 years old escaped to the southern U.S. Around a year later, her father's job relocated them to the Middle East before Iran fell in 1979. 

“My family was one of the ones evacuated in Tehran,” she recalled. “I remember hearing the violence and sirens.”

Through this challenging international childhood experience, Whitfield developed a key perspective.

“I understand that art and cultural heritage is all around the world, and I appreciate different cultures,” she said. “The world is so much bigger than you think it is, so you need to experience different things.”

Each place Whitfield moved to became an adventure. She marveled at the cherry trees at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, where she earned a bachelor's degree in art history in 1993. 

She also admired the small but impressive art museum in Macon, and those visits helped her realize her true passion when she was only six hours away from earning an accounting degree. 

“I wanted to go into the cultural heritage field,” she recalled. “I wanted to work in a museum and handle all the incoming and outgoing exhibits and items. My goal was to enjoy the art and see everything going through the museum.”

When Whitfield researched museum science programs at the time, there were only 13 in the nation and Texas Tech ranked in the top five. She enrolled and journeyed to West Texas in the fall of 1993. 

At Home in the Hub City 

Despite initial reservations about Lubbock after learning about the 1970 tornado that devastated the city, she was immediately struck by the open sky that became vibrant at sunset. 

“It's a different landscape, but it's a beautiful landscape,” she said. “You feel so small when you're walking around because you have this huge sky and the trees aren't very large. You feel almost exposed and it actually bothered me when I first got here. 

“Now if I go back and visit family in the south with the massive trees, it feels a little bit claustrophobic because I've gotten so used to being able to see miles at a time.” 

Whitfield also fell in love with Texas Tech's campus, beautified through Arbor Day traditions and the public art program. She felt the Lubbockites were friendly and Red Raiders spirited, having just won a Lady Raiders basketball national championship a few months prior. 

Whitfield earned her Master of Arts in museum science in 1995. Then from 1997 to 2019, Whitfield steadily worked her way up from information specialist to university archivist. 

While her position changed several times, her constant remained digging into the roots of her alma mater. 

“It's exciting knowing you're part of an institution that has survived 100 years, particularly given the early history of the university,” Whitfield explained. “When Texas Tech opened its doors, we were hoping for 600 students but we got more than 900. So, on the very first day, we didn't have enough facilities or faculty.” 

There were not even enough library books at the time to meet the regional demand for education. 

“In fact, the faculty loaned their library books out to students,” Whitfield said. “So, Texas Tech struggled year by year until World War II because there was this need in West Texas for students to go to school.” 

Texas Tech only continued to grow from there with the arrival of Reese Air Force Base. The construction of more dorms and buildings also helped the university begin to flourish. 

“From the very beginning, our school was like ‘The Little Engine That Could',” she said. “We survived, and today, we are a tier one institution and have national prominence for our research, facilities and campus.”

Whitfield has thoroughly enjoyed sorting through multigeneration Texas Tech memorabilia, antiques and more. Nearly 30 years after her master's program, she still uses her collections management skills.

When interacting with donors and potential donors, Whitfield ensures they understand the item will always be available to visit while also being easily accessible to researchers. 

“We will take good care of it, because everything that comes to the archives become property of the state of Texas,” Whitfield assured. “We provide good stewardship and we are cognizant of caring for those items.”

This proves challenging for some donations which are fragile, rare and valuable. 

“I do have artifacts,” she said. “I have to decide, ‘What's the best way to store, handle and display them?”

Whitfield has asked herself those questions more often the past couple years with the highly anticipated arrival of Texas Tech's centennial.

“Part of the reason I got these artifacts is because people learned about our history, and they're like, ‘OK, let me give you something back to return some of the university's history,'” Whitfield said. “So that's been wonderful.”

Collections from the Centennial  

One of Whitfield's favorite donations this year came from the Bob & Dolores Hope Foundation. Bob Hope was an American comedian, actor, entertainer, and producer from 1924 to 1998. 

In 1974, Hope attended Texas Tech's homecoming football game. During his celebrity appearance, Hope presented the Goin' Band with a community service award. 

That was only one of his visits to campus, and each time he was given Texas Tech souvenirs that his foundation eventually decided to return.

“I just received a little white sailor's hat that all the members of the organization Delta Gamma autographed and gave to Bob Hope during one of his visits,” Whitfield said. “Then he was given a Double T branding iron on a plaque from the alumni association. And the city actually gave him a proclamation that was mounted. All that history is now back at the university.”

The Bob Hope items simply arrived out of the blue and surprised Whitfield, unlike other donations she worked to receive. 

Whitfield was digitizing a portrait one day when she noticed the subject, a first-year student, was holding a black-and-red bull (like Texas Tech's former Matador mascot). The plush was sold in the campus bookstore during the 1950-60s and she intended to hunt one down.

“It was like those autographable dogs you can buy for a new graduate,” she explained. “So, for years, I've been on the lookout for one of those bulls.”

She had no luck until she received a tip from her former director about a woman who had one of the coveted bulls but was not ready to part with it. 

Whitfield had several discussions with the woman for two months – and her patience paid off. 

“One day, magically, it shows up,” Whitfield said. “The deciding factor for the donor was knowing the university's centennial was coming up. So that bull is one of my favorite items.”

There were other rare Matador items gathered during the centennial along with several Texas Tech Dairy Barn glass milk bottles and a wooden milk crate donated by Gretchen and Stephen Scott and Gail and Dennis Burrows. Gretchen and Gail are Davis College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources alumni and Dennis is a Texas Tech School of Law alumnus. 

Thanks to their generosity, the bottles and milk crate are back home for display in the award-winning renovated Dairy Barn. 

“The Dairy Barn is very near and dear to my heart because I walked past it as a graduate student,” Whitfield said. “Those milk bottles are a physical representation of our early roots, when students were allowed to bring their dairy cows to campus and sell the milk to help pay for their college tuition.”

Texas Tech's centennial has not only encouraged donations, but helped boost an oral history effort Whitfield has grown for about 20 years – one-on-one interviews she records as an indispensable modern research tool.

“Everyone has a unique story,” she said, “and if you don't share your story, down the road that could alter what's written about an event or a situation. To write a balanced story, you need more than one perspective.”

One of the topics Whitfield has interviewed individuals about over the years is women's history and that of underrepresented students at Texas Tech. For the centennial, she chose to seek faculty and staff members who have had a Texas Tech connection for more than 25 years. 

“Some of my favorite interviews are the ones where they have been willing to share more personal experiences beyond their academic career,” she said. “I usually try to focus on people who are in their 50s to 70s, because your perspective in your 20s versus your perspective in your 60s can be quite different.”

It has taken years, sometimes decades, for Whitfield to gain the trust of some of her interviewees, but she stays determined. 

“If I get one done, that's one more that we didn't have before,” she said. “Anything we can get done is something 20, 40, 50 years down the road someone else can use.”

Informing the Future

Whitfield has stayed busy and met many new people interested in sharing tidbits of Texas Tech's history during its centennial year.

Most of the requests have been for dated photographs of campus and mascots. Whitfield has a small sampling of these images and many more available online – and by small, she means nearly 30,000 photographs that are not even 1% of their holdings. 

“That's what archives are: the warehouse or facility for stories,” she said. “You've got to put that kind of stuff out there so people can discover them and want to learn more.”

For the past several years, Whitfield has prepared for the historical content demand brought about by Texas Tech's centennial. She and her team digitized yearbooks, commencement programs and many, many newspapers. In fact, the Southwest Collections has more than 300,000 newspapers from across the Texas Panhandle and beyond available online for free. 

Some of the included news outlets no longer exist.  

“We recognize a lot of people can't get to Lubbock, but just because you can't come here physically doesn't mean you can't do research,” she said. “We have international researchers who contact us via email because we've made original research materials available on a worldwide scale.”

That archival feat makes Whitfield think of a speech that Texas Tech's first president, Paul Whitfield Horn, made to the first class of Red Raiders about thinking broadly and globally. 

“It's the best of all worlds,” Whitfield said. “That's what Texas Tech is doing with its campuses not just in Lubbock but worldwide, and that's what we should be doing.”

But Whitfield also is focused on local efforts, more specifically the off-campus Lubbock community. 

She joined the Lubbock Heritage Society several years ago and is their current president. The organization's goal is to try and protect the past by encouraging the city not to destroy old structures and landmarks. 

Whitfield has joined efforts to save the red brick streets as well as protested the demolition of a former hospital near campus, the Godbold building. 

“Having lived in Lubbock for years, I can't help but be affected by the history of this area,” she said, “because if you're erasing all your history, you're taking away part of what makes you special.”

It's not that Whitfield thinks everything is worth preserving. It's just, as an archivist, the idea of losing history is heartbreaking.

She considers history as the word within the word: story. Tales of pioneers to current citizens and the events that happened along the way. 

In Texas Tech's case, there are a multitude of testimonies, countless explanations and supporting evidence as to why the university has not only survived for a century but grown to thrive. And many pages of that story are missing. 

“There's many aspects of university history we've lost,” Whitfield said. “We either didn't have the staff or resources at the time. You can't save and digitize everything, so there's a strategy to do the best you can and hope you saved enough that somebody else down the road can use it.”

As the next chapters of Texas Tech's legacy are compiled, Whitfield will continue to unbox and store mementos of generations and milestones as long as she can with the sentiment of a proud Red Raider.

“There are so many stories about Texas Tech that have yet to be told,” Whitfield said. “As an alumnus, I'm amazed how much the university has grown and developed into a powerhouse for research, education and other areas of cultural heritage. Our slogan – From Here, It's Possible ™ – applies to our history.

“And I don't see us stopping anytime soon. While we're focused on the current 100 years, for me, it's not just a celebration of how far we have come – but how far we are going to go.”