The James Sowell Family Collection in Literature, Community, and the Natural World contains the manuscripts, correspondence, photographs, diaries and journals, and audio and video recordings from some of the most important and thought-provoking writers of our time. Not Whitman; not Hemingway; but writers as potentially important as those literary giants. Contemporary writers writing about contemporary issues. Poets, novelists, essayists—people still trying to help us understand and address the complex and troublesome issues we face today—from climate change to species extinction to questions of spirituality. Their topics are as broad as the planet.
The most common misconception about the Sowell Collection is that people think it’s all about and houses only writers from Texas and the Southwest. People are surprised to find that this isn’t the case. My problem, though, in explaining this to them, is to know which writer to mention. Most people have heard of Barry Lopez and have read at least one of his books. Most people, however, are very surprised to learn that Lopez’s manuscript material is held by Texas Tech University. They always want to know how this happened, how Lubbock came to be the home for such a literary treasure.
A little over ten years ago, James Sowell, a Texas Tech University alum who was also chair of the Board of Regents, wanted to make a contribution to Texas Tech, and offered to support a new collection involving research, faculty, and students here at his alma mater. At the same time, Barry Lopez, the award winning writer of Arctic Dreams and Of Wolves and Men, was hoping to find a university that would accept the voluminous accumulation of his life’s work, to arrange, preserve, and make it available to scholars. Lopez instinctively knew that what he had accumulated through his years of research and writing provided a significant window onto the cultural, social and ecological landscape of the United States and the world at a particularly important juncture in history. We are very fortunate here at Texas Tech that our administrators were able to bring Barry Lopez and James Sowell together, thereby bringing this truly important literary collection here as well.
When the library acquired Lopez’s manuscripts, he had also arranged for a group of like-minded writers—David Quammen and Bill McKibben, among others—to also donate papers. Throughout the years, Lopez recommended other writers, and so the collection continues to grow. The first five collections were open for research in 2001. We now have 15 open collections, two in process, and two more awaiting processing. Our most recent acquisition, the papers of Gary Paul Nabhan, an ethnobotanist and foodways expert, was opened for research last spring.
Since 2001, Lopez has visited campus about two times a year. In addition to meeting with students and classes, he has also developed friendly and professional relationships with faculty and administrators. Lopez even proposed the name for the literary collection here: James Sowell Family Collection (to honor the donor and his family) in Literature, Community, and the Natural World – to indicate that the collection functions across disciplines, that it includes both literary and scientific papers, and that it forms, as a whole, a community. One thing that makes this collection different from others is that the writers are in fact a community. They know each other, work on projects together, critique and comment on each other’s work, and write letters to each other. With these documented relationships, each collection we have strengthens and enhances numerous others.