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The Portal to Texas History makes a wealth of research and documents available online

A high school student in Yoakum sits at a laptop researching a term paper for his history class. He reads about the great Texas cattle drives and examines maps of the trails to market towns in Kansas. A world away, an English-speaking reporter sits at a computer in a Yokohama newsroom, researching background about Lyndon B. Johnson to be included in an article about Texas politics for her readers in Japan.

The student and the reporter, more than 6,000 miles apart, are using a website known as the Portal to Texas History.

The free website contains nearly 12 million digitized historical documents for research. In 2002, University of North Texas librarian Cathy Hartman realized the impact digitization could have on traditional libraries and their paper materials. “Our goal,” she says, “was to create a technical infrastructure to preserve digital copies of Texas history materials and provide free access to the materials for everyone.” She set about securing a series of grants that funded the project.

By 2004, the initial set of digitized resources were online. Four years later, the National Endowment for the Humanities named the portal one of the best research sites on the internet. By 2010, it had 100 partners providing materials for digitization. UNT maintains the massive online collection.

Its contents span the pre-Columbian era to recent occurrences—for every geographical area of Texas. Each document on the portal is indexed and searchable.

Web Extra: The funeral procession for Judge W.J. Austin in the Denton square. Among the signs that can be seen on buildings: C. M. Greenlee, H.J. Howell Jeweler, Walden & Cobb Furniture and Coffins, and Opera House.

The Portal to Texas History, University of North Texas Libraries

Hartman, now retired dean of libraries at UNT, explains the portal works with more than 400 partners around Texas, including libraries, museums, archives and private collectors, to share collections online. The portal currently receives about 1 million unique visits each month. People come back to it because there is always something new to discover.

“It is exciting,” she says, “to hear from genealogists who use the portal to track family history or from teachers who use it as a resource in their class.” Hartman says she has no favorite section but browses the collections regularly.

The portal has greatly assisted my writing about Texas history. My bibliographical book Discovering Texas History required examining hundreds of items. I accomplished this task during a week’s work on the portal, something that otherwise would have required well over a month of walking among shelves of several libraries.

My recent biography, Allie Victoria Tennant and the Visual Arts in Dallas, could have demanded my visiting several dozen archives. There I would have searched through thousands of unindexed paper items, turning page after page for many weeks, only intermittently finding the information I needed. Instead, a few days’ work in the portal enabled me to efficiently locate more than 1,500 documents, which I saved to my computer. The portal made that book a manageable research project in terms of expending my time and efforts.

Web Extra: A band at the Olney bandstand.

The Portal to Texas History, University of North Texas Libraries

In my travels while serving as the state historian of Texas, I talked with many other historians and all agree on the portal’s value. “It is accessible, easy to use and contains the most diverse collection of Texana imaginable,” said Deborah Liles, history professor at Tarleton State University in Stephenville.

The portal provides one-stop shopping for students, teachers, journalists, genealogists, writers or anyone with a general interest in Texas history.

New materials enter the archive constantly, contributed by many repositories throughout Texas. Libraries, archives and museums regularly loan paper items from their holdings. These include letters, newspapers, journals, public documents, manuscripts, school yearbooks, magazines, photographs and other historical materials. The staff at the portal digitizes these items, applies software to make each one searchable by computer and then adds them to the online collection. Once each item is digitized, the paper original is returned to its owner. The portal grows more useful as documents are added and digitization technology advances.

The portal puts Texas history at the fingertips of every teacher and student in the state, from the smallest elementary school to the largest university. This has been my experience teaching at Austin College in Sherman. Over the years, hundreds of my students have written term papers along with a number of advanced theses based on their research in the portal. The portal also contains thousands of historical photographs that illustrate Texas history. I regularly enhance my class presentations by projecting images of key documents and images for student discussion.

Simply put, the Portal to Texas History has changed the researching, writing and teaching of history about our state.

Light T. Cummins served as state historian of Texas 2009–12 and is a professor emeritus at Austin College.