REX NELSON: A place for history

Posted: March 3, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

It wasn't a surprise recently when the board of the Central Arkansas Library System renamed the Arkansas Studies Institute in Little Rock's River Market District after Bobby Roberts, the visionary leader who transformed CALS into one of the most innovative library systems in the country. Roberts retired in 2016 after 27 years at the helm. The former ASI, home of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's Center for Arkansas History & Culture, will now be known as the Bobby L. Roberts Library of Arkansas History and Art.

"Our library system has been fortunate throughout its history to have strong leadership from numerous members of the community," said Little Rock attorney Fred Ursery, a former CALS board member. "However, I'm not aware of any single person who has done more than Bobby Roberts to make CALS the dynamic asset that it is today. He deserves to be recognized."

It's fitting that a facility housing two organizations focused on Arkansas history has been named after Roberts, a historian by training. Roberts always viewed CALS as being about more than books. He wanted the system to be a vital part of the cultural mix in central Arkansas, a place that sponsored everything from lectures to concerts. He believed that a new main library in what had been a hardware warehouse would help ensure that the River Market District would be about more than bars and restaurants. It also would have a cultural aspect and be a place to go during the day, not just at night.

"Bobby established a new normal at CALS by creating new concepts of what the public library could offer the community and by constructing unique spaces to make the library more appealing and accessible to all sorts of groups with varied interests in learning, enrichment and entertainment," said Nate Coulter, the Little Rock lawyer who replaced Roberts as director. "The library's primary purpose has always been to provide access to information. But Bobby transformed and expanded what it means to be a library by placing a particular emphasis on Arkansas history and culture."

The Butler Center was born in 1997 through an endowment by the late Richard Butler Sr. Its goal is to create a greater appreciation of Arkansas history, literature, art and culture. I believe that its online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture--which now has more than 5,000 entries--has done more than anything to promote an understanding of this state's history. Roberts later convinced UALR officials to move their Arkansas-related documents and photographs from the main campus on South University Avenue to a remodeled complex in the River Market District. Since 1968, the UALR Center for Arkansas History & Culture has collected letters, legal documents, photographs, maps, architectural drawings, pamphlets, books, journals, newspapers and other materials. The collections comprise almost 10,000 linear feet, more than 70,000 images and about 8,000 books.

On a cold, gray Friday afternoon last month, I visited with Deborah Baldwin, who has been a member of the UALR faculty since 1980. Baldwin, whose doctorate in history is from the University of Chicago, specializes in modern Mexican history. At UALR, her roles have included chairing the History Department; serving as dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences; and serving as associate provost and interim provost. She's the director of the Center for Arkansas History & Culture and has a passion for its work.

"Bobby had been an archivist and understood the importance of making collections available to researchers," Baldwin said. "We had obtained more and more collections through the years. It made sense to be down here so researchers could access our collections and Butler Center collections in the same building. When I was asked to take over the UALR archives in 2010, I was determined to do more than just issue a report. I knew we needed to do additional outreach and host more programs."

UALR now uses the Internet to post online exhibits. Baldwin said: "Most people won't ever come to a university archives and dig through boxes. But they will look at a website. We have everything from photo galleries to video clips to teachers' guides online. We're working with other departments at the university. We're taking their collections and putting them out there for the public to access."

Baldwin took me to the center's digital services lab, which trains students to digitize films, audio tapes, albums and more. I feel as if I've stepped back in time as I look at a turntable, reel-to-reel recorder, cassette tapes and Beta and VHS tapes. Baldwin said the lab is digitizing "thousands of items" before they wear out.

Of the 30 grants for which the center has applied during the past five years, it has received 28. Baldwin goes to Washington, D.C., on a regular basis to make grant presentations.

"I'm not about to retire because I enjoy what we're doing too much," she said. "And there's so much still to do. I want to expand the number of exhibits we're putting on the website, and there are far more materials that need to be digitized."

The Roberts Library even houses the gubernatorial papers of six former Arkansas governors--Carl Bailey, Winthrop Rockefeller, Dale Bumpers, Bill Clinton, Frank White and Jim Guy Tucker. The complex also houses the offices of the Arkansas Humanities Council and provides additional space for the Clinton School of Public Service.

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

Editorial on 03/03/2018