“I watch Republicans, they give each other the saliva test of purity, and then they lose and they bitch for four years.” So spoke Al Simpson in a February 2012 interview with CBS’s Bob Schieffer on the need for a socially tolerant, big tent Republican Party. Colorful quotes are part and parcel of Al Simpson’s prominent national political career that spans more than 30 years.
I am the archivist for the Alan K. Simpson Institute for Western Politics and Leadership, a program at the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center. The Institute was created in 2000 through an endowment from Julienne Michel, a friend of Al and Ann Simpson. The Institute focuses on the acquisition, preservation, research use of, and public programs related to the papers and oral history interviews of prominent individuals, businesses, and organizations that have provided leadership – political, economic, social, and cultural – for Wyoming and the Rocky Mountain West.
Acquiring collections is a large part of my work. I’m constantly on the lookout for collections that will add to the prestigious political and business collections held by the AHC. Currently, one focus is the business of energy development, an area closely tied to Wyoming’s economic well-being. Acquisitions is one of the most challenging tasks I’ve performed as an archivist. How should I approach potential collection donors to spark their interest? How can I assist them in what may seem like an overwhelming prospect of transferring their papers or records? What is the best way to deal with the many types of electronic materials? Those are among the weightier questions I ask myself. It’s always a thrill when someone I’ve approached shows strong interest in transferring their materials to the AHC’s research collections.
Over the past two years, energy development has become a major focus for the Institute in another way. In 2010, the Institute began an oral history project funded by the Wyoming Humanities Council to collect oral histories from Sublette County, an area that experienced a natural gas boom in the early 2000s.
What were the socioeconomic and environmental effects of the boom? Enlightening audio-based interviews from that project are on the AHC’s website. As this project neared conclusion, talk of an oil boom within eastern Wyoming’s Niobrara Formation began. How do communities prepare for a possible boom? What are the hopes and fears of residents of this area? The UW School of Energy Resources became interested in the project and funded video-based interviews with residents, local and state officials, business owners, landowners, energy company representatives, and others in the Niobrara oil play. It’s been fascinating to talk with interviewees about how they prepare for something they’re not sure will happen, but might. Those interviews will soon be available at http://digitalcollections.uwyo.edu:8180/luna/servlet/.
One aspect of the Simpson Institute job that I really like is the variety. In addition to oral history and acquisitions, I also organize public programming on various political issues that affect Wyoming and the nation. One interesting program focused on the Code of the West, a set of ethics couched in cowboy terms and promoted by successful businessman Jim Owens. The Wyoming Legislature in 2010 adopted the code; the UW College of Business did the same soon after. How do Wyoming residents feel about the code? I organized a panel discussion that examined its origins and what it signifies. A mix of opinions were voiced; some praised it while others said it as an overly idealistic depiction of Western history and the cowboy lifestyle.
My work in the Simpson Institute is constantly evolving. Over the next few years, I plan to realize the dream of organizing a symposium on immigration, a topic of great concern to Senator Simpson during his time in office. But I have to say that some of the things I’ll do in five to ten years will evolve depending on the objectives and goals of the AHC as a whole. I’m confident it will be a fun and exciting direction!
–Leslie Waggener, Simpson Archivist