I’m Not an Archivist but I Play One at the Office: Interview with Cindy Slater of the Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports

COPA member Lindsay Anderberg, Interdisciplinary Science & Technology Librarian and Poly Archivist at New York University, interviews Cindy Slater, Assistant Director for Library Services at The H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports.  Slater explains how the Stark Center came to be and why sports and physical culture collections are relevant to just about everyone.

ArchivesAWARE: We’ll get this out of the way first: you are not an archivist.  But, here you are on an archives blog!  Could you tell us your title and the way in which your work supports archival collections, patrons, and/or donors at the Stark Center?

Cindy Slater

Slater: To paraphrase the old television commercial, I’m not an archivist but I play one at the office.  My title is Assistant Director for Library Services but we are a small shop so we all wear several hats.  While I am primarily focused on patron reference services and library collection maintenance, I also spend a lot of time doing basic registrar duties, what I call triage preservation, collection assessment and some arrangement/description work. I’m joined on staff by two digital archivists and one processing archivist.  In addition, our directors, Jan and Terry Todd, have offices here, as do two other faculty members, Kim Beckwith and Tommy Hunt.

ArchivesAWARE: Tell us about the Stark Center.  What does it collect and how did it come to be?

Slater: The H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sport is a research center within the Department of Kinesiology & Health Education at the University of Texas, Austin.  As the name implies, our collection is focused on materials that document the world of physical fitness and sports, with an emphasis on weight training and strength development.  You’ll note, though, that we use the term “physical culture,” an old term, common at the end of the 19th Century, that denotes the  “various activities people have employed over the centuries to strengthen their bodies, enhance their physiques, increase their endurance, enhance their health, fight against aging, and become better athletes.”  For a number of reasons, the term fell out of favor but we’d like to see it revived since it best describes the wide-ranging focus of early pioneers of physical fitness, men and women who believed a well-rounded person was one who exercised their body, their mind, and their emotions.

The Stark Center Reading Room

The Stark Center Reading Room

The Stark Center exists through the perseverance of Terry and Jan Todd.  Both were world-class, record-setting athletes in the sport of powerlifting and both are world-class academics in the realm of sports history.  When Terry started working on his dissertation, back in the mid-1960s, he quickly discovered that weightlifting and strength training materials were rarely found in academic libraries.  Instead, those materials had been collected and preserved by individuals whose passion for the field was on display in their homes, attics, garages – any place they could set up one more bookcase or file cabinet.  Terry believed these materials showcased and explained an important part of human history – the idea that “building the body” was as important as, and  integral to, enriching the mind or the soul.  So, the Todds began collecting material themselves, sometimes adding the collections of those private individuals who had befriended Terry as he researched his dissertation.  When they settled at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) in the mid-1980s, they brought the collection with them and began to petition the University to help with space and support.  In 2008, the University gave them about 22,000 square feet of space in a new building situated in the UT football stadium but money to build out the space had to be raised outside the University.

Knowing the connection of Lutcher Stark to UT (Board of Regent President), to the University’s football program (manager of the 1910 team), and to physical fitness in general (studied weight training with Alan Calver), the Todds approached The Nelda C. and H.J. Lutcher Stark Foundation requesting funds to build out a library/archive/exhibit space that would house their extensive and growing historical collection, as well as illustrate the history of physical culture.  We are eternally grateful to the Stark Foundation for seeing the value of the Todds’ vision and, consequently, providing the majority of funds necessary to build out the space and to continue operations.  We are also grateful to the Betty and Joe Weider Foundation for providing further funds to create and maintain our exhibit space.  

ArchivesAWARE: Who is your typical researcher?

Slater: We have two broad groups of researchers.  One is currently enrolled students at UT, most of whom are working on papers within their major.  Even though we are part of the Department of Kinesiology, we’ve supported the research needs of students in American Studies, Art History, Health Promotion, Economics, among others.  The second group of researchers include both dissertation and book writers.  While some of these researchers come from within UT, a large number have come from other institutions or are independent writers.  These individuals, who are taking a deeper look at a specific aspect of physical culture, find our collection to hold materials they’ve not seen elsewhere.

ArchivesAWARE: What is your favorite item or collection in the Stark Center?

Slater: Oh boy, this is like asking a parent which child is their favorite!  But I have to admit that there are two collections that I frequently refer to when talking about the value of preserving our legacies.  One is the collection of Abbye and Les Stockton, a couple who were at the center of Muscle Beach during its prime.  “Pudgy” (Abbye’s childhood nickname stuck, even though she was anything but!) was a strong proponent of getting women in the weight room.  She believed a strong woman was a beautiful woman.  Her collection is full of fantastic photographs of strong men and women doing incredible gymnastic feats before a beach-happy crowd of admirers.

The other amazing collection is a set of 20 scrapbooks compiled by Mauryene Kite, mother of the professional golfer (and UT grad), Tom Kite.  Mrs. Kite must have had a strong intuition that her son would become one of the best golfers on the PGA Tour because she started an incredibly detailed scrapbook when Tom was still in junior high school.  And she continued compiling scrapbooks, almost one for each year of his long career.  These scrapbooks include photographs, letters, scorecards, programs, course layouts, newspaper clippings – they are a perfect microcosm of an athlete’s life.  The three scrapbooks she made of Tom’s years at UT tell us more about the UT golf program than we’d ever be able to find on our own.

Photograph of "Pudgy," from the Abbye and Les Stockton Collection

“Pudgy,” from the Abbye and Les Stockton Collection

 ArchivesAWARE: What is the most interesting experience you’ve had with a Stark Center researcher or donor?

Slater: We were recently visited by a professor from South Africa who has been researching the history of physical culture/fitness in his native country.  He came to the Stark Center to specifically review early issues of Health & Strength, a British publication that included news of physical culture activities held throughout the British Commonwealth.  Growing up, his mother had told him that a photograph of her had been published in Health & Strength but neither she nor anyone in the family had a copy.  So it was with some emotion that, late one afternoon, he announced that he had found her photograph.  It made his long and expensive trip very worthwhile and it just made our day. 

ArchivesAWARE: Why do you think it is important to collect, preserve, and provide access to sports collections?

Slater: There are a number of sociological, economic, medical, and psychological studies out there that tout the value of both sport, in the big picture sense, and sports, in the daily activity sense.  The findings of these studies help us to understand the hundreds of ways in which sports impact our lives.  As important as these findings are,  I think the reason for archiving sports collections is really very simple – sports are part of our whole.  Archivists are in the business of documenting our culture, all aspects of our culture, and sports are part of that.  I suppose there are folks for whom sports have little relevancy but the vast majority of us have some connection to the sports world.  Maybe we cheer on our local high school football team, or we have a nephew competing in junior figure skating, or a friend who raises cancer awareness by running marathons.  Maybe we spend Saturday on the golf course and Sunday watching the NFL, or we’re part of a “soccer mom” carpool.  Sports may be a little piece or a large piece but either way, it’s a piece of the whole of our lives.  And so it is worth our time to study, explore and understand – and that’s not possible without archives.

ArchivesAWARE: What are the common misconceptions (if any) archivists have about sports-related collections?

Slater: Actually, I don’t think most archivists have misconceptions about sport because, almost across the spectrum, I find archivists to be keenly aware that they are responsible for the whole picture.  So whether their collections are personal or organizational, archivists know that if the collection includes sports-related materials, then they have a value as part of the whole.

To the degree that misconceptions exist, I think they exist in the minds of the athletes, coaches, and administrators who often simply don’t think that their professional and personal legacies are that important.  But, with few exceptions, isn’t this the same problem faced by many archivists who are focused on a specific segment of our culture?  It’s so hard to convince people that the decisions they make, the activities in which they participate, the outcomes of their daily work, all have value to current and future generations.  Sometimes it’s a very personal value (like our South African professor finding his mother in Health & Strength) and sometimes it’s a culture-wide value.  The sports community is no different, so for those of us who love sports, our mission is to persuade and assist members of that community with identifying and keeping records that tell their story.

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