Sport in the Archive: Research Reflections 

I’ve just returned from a month-long research trip to Oklahoma, where I was visiting archives and reading microfilm for my dissertation on Bud Wilkinson and the 1950s University of Oklahoma football dynasty. Like Stephen Townsend’s post last week, I’ll be reflecting on the process of research as it relates to writing sports history. This piece draws upon my past experience in archives as both an archivist and a researcher. It is also informed by various words of wisdom given to me throughout my graduate school years. During this time, I’ve had two advisors – Randy Roberts and Richard O. Davies – who are both remarkably generous and productive. Their advice has guided me into the frigid tombs that we call archives and has undoubtedly informed what I’ve written here. First, however, I must echo the Yoda-like saying of my undergraduate advisor: “The sources will guide you.”

While it is certainly true that the sources will guide you, you’ve got to find them first. My particular project, and those I’ve completed in the past, revolves mostly around two major primary sources bases: university archives and newspapers. I’ve become quite fond of university archives through the years – my interest in sport history developed while working in my alma mater’s archive – but I have also come to recognize they’re all different. These differences relate to the age, collecting procedures, and organization of the archive. Ideally the choices in collecting and organizing materials follow a distinct policy, however, such policies vary widely and can be tinged by the interests of administrators and archivists alike. Indeed, I’ve argued first hand with fellow archivists over what is worth saving (offering my perspective as a historian on what and how things may be useful). Sadly, at lot of schools, athletic department files are one of these areas. Likewise, early collegiate athletic teams were often student organized without the concern for official documentation and preservation.

This is not the blame of archivists, of course. Athletic Department themselves are often reluctant to share or donate their files to university repositories when past collecting policies didn’t require it. For example, Purdue’s athletic department maintains its own records through its sports information department and researchers must request information from them. They’ve been reluctant to give any of their documents to the university archives. One positive from this is that they’ll have an intern go look through their collections for you. I’ve never seen a finding aid for their papers, so it’s tricky to know exactly what they have. This makes it difficult because the intern’s research is only as good as the directions and topics you give them. They’re generally not trained to read against the grain and probably wont report back with alternative ideas. This isn’t meant to be discouraging and probably isn’t true for all athletic departments, especially if you’re researching a broad, popular topic, but I’ve had mixed results.

Even when university archives do have sports files, they’re often incomplete and focus on statistics or media relations documents such as game programs and media guides. In my experience, it is difficult to locate the personal papers of athletics directors (ADs) or coaches, particularly in more recent eras when such figures change jobs frequently. Similarly, some coaches and ADs just don’t realize their documents are worth saving. During my brief time as an archivist, I saved the papers of our retiring athletic director and a track coach. They both told me that they were planning to trash their documents prior to my asking.

As Ronald Smith noted in his 1990 Journal of Sport History guide “Researching Archives and College Football,” president’s papers are by far the best resource for sports historians to consult. Because they reflect the major issues and events on campus life, president’s papers are almost always saved and processed by University archives. Unfortunately, not all sports are represented. During my trip this summer I consulted the papers of University of Oklahoma President George L. Cross. In his papers, football and basketball were the only two sports that had their own specific files. This is not surprising given their role as “revenue” sports. There was, however, reference to other sports in the files labeled “athletics” more generally. They contained items such as conference minutes (that often include results), budgets and contracts, and some correspondence.

Like presidents’ papers, boards of trustees’ (or regents, visitors, etc.) minutes are also essential for university based sports research. Though they also deal predominately with revenue sports, at many universities the board also approves all contracts – including items like broadcasting, employment, conference affiliation, and construction. At OU the board talked frequently about the issue the television during the 1950s, often objecting to the NCAAs quest for total control. When read in tandem with the president’s papers lively debates and confrontations begin to appear. One really interesting story I found this summer concerns the radio broadcasting rights and sponsorships of Oklahoma football. The president and the board oscillated back and forth on whether to sale the rights for the most money or to reach the most listeners. They questioned which was more central to the mission of the university and best fulfilled its obligation to taxpayers. Believe it or not, a broader audience won out.

Another place to look, if possible, is the faculty athletic representative’s (FAR) files. While the personal papers of faculty member can also be hit-or-miss, like coaches and ADs, FAR papers offer tremendous insight. These papers can contain documents related to eligibility, scholarships, conference meetings, national meetings (e.g. NCAA or NAIA), as well as meetings of the university athletic board (in some eras this is a faculty board). I first became acquainted with FAR papers while an archives intern the summer between my junior and senior year of undergrad. I had just completed my senior thesis the previous spring (a year early) and found an untouched file cabinet in the archive. Few people had opened the cabinet in the years it sat in the archive. Not following any clear collecting policy, the archivist joked that the old wooden file cabinet was probably wheeled in on dolly and left to be discovered. I got to discover that cabinet.

My job that summer was to organize the papers with coherent labels and rehouse them in acid-free folder. In the process I learned that the papers belonged to a chemistry professor, E. J. Cragoe, who served as the faculty athletic representative from Baker University to the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference (KCAC) for over 20 years (I get the feeling that FARs generally hold their positions for a while). He also served as Secretary and later Vice President of the KCAC. The collection included: the official conference meeting minutes, eligibility reports, heat-sheets and programs for the annual track meet, correspondence with important athletic officials and documents various and sundry. Such a trove is rare and, perhaps, even unusual depending on the scope of your project.

While personal papers and correspondence are invaluable resources, most sports research relies heavily on published sources. My advisors have told me their books often use close to 75% newspaper and magazine sources. While the personal insight of the archive is essential, so too is the daily coverage of teams and events. Within the archive, however, there is a quick and easy ways to gain access to important newspapers articles. Some athletic departments subscribe to news services and compile clippings o into scrapbooks. At the University of Kansas and Haskell Indian Nations University, I was able to isolate important dates and story-lines from Billy Mills’ athletic career that saved me an incredible amount of time. It is important to always crosscheck these clippings and expand upon them with magazine and newspapers (often on microfilm), but the scrapbooks are a great jump-start and can help add balance.

Of course, in the end there is no substitute to microfilm. Sports, unlike some other areas of history, require an understanding of the daily grind. This is especially true in my current research, where the University of Oklahoma football team won 47 consecutive games from 1953-1957. To get a feel for the streak, I’ve read several daily newspapers for those 5 seasons. I was careful to take note of the major events on-campus and locally as well as nationally and beyond football. Reading newspapers helps you get inside of the historical moment and understand the culture of specific places. I firmly believe that developing a sense of place is critical for doing good history. For example, reading the Oklahoma Daily campus newspaper helps me see what issues and events were most important to OU students. The papers covered some national stories in passing and others in-depth. These narratives sometimes counter with the local newspaper, Norman Transcript and regional papers like the Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoman or Tulsa World. Multiple perspectives on the team, and other issues such as race and politics, help add texture to the story. While it is tedious and difficult to go through all of these papers, the more one consults the stronger command they have of the specific culture and the emotions active in the specific moments you’re studying.

Though most newspaper microfilm is not located in archives, a lot of local papers are difficult to access from afar. I’ve been able to get a few papers via Inter Library Loan, but not all of them, and my library has had difficulty getting certain years. On my trip this summer, I devoted a week and a half just to reading microfilm. Most libraries are equipped with scanners so you don’t have waste money printing everything out and can archive it for later use. If you’re doing research after 1922, the smaller papers probably aren’t digitized (the Library of Congress is working to digitize those prior). Digital newspaper archives are beginning to pop-up around the web. These services can be spotty on specific papers and dates, so be sure to check out what they have before you subscribe. Alternatively, I recently discovered that some newspapers are beginning to offer subscriptions directly to their own digital archives, avoiding the hassle of microfilm. The Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoma has an option to subscribe only to its digital archive for as low as $9.99/month. The Kansa City Star and other papers offer similar services (there’s is $19.95/month with a limit to 200 downloads per month). These digital archives are often buried deep in newspapers’ websites and difficult to find.

While it’s beyond the purview of the archive, it is worth noting here that I relied heavily on oral history for my master’s thesis. Oral history is a common tools for those of us that do recent sports history. Preparing ahead of time for interviews is essential. I took an oral history workshop and consulted with the director of oral history at my master’s institution prior to conducting the interview. Once prepared, I had the privilege of spending a day chatting with Billy Mills at his home. The interview was integral to the project. If available, oral history is fantastic addition to any research project. Interviews should be conducted at the conclusion of your research. You want to be as informed as possible before speaking with people, and you also don’t want their stories to affect your research.

Perhaps most of what I have written here is common sense. Locating sources and designing projects usually comes one of two ways: 1) reading the historiography and finding a gap 2) randomly stumbling onto a really cool source. If I had to recommend a path, I’d usually pick number two, but that rarely happens. Instead, most of us read the literature, craft our question, and look for archives before devouring their finding aids. Then, once we’re in the archive we dig through box after box checking items off of our list. It’s a fairly simple process.

I hope my personal reflections help complicate that process a little bit and prompt us think through how and where we find sports in the archives. Research requires finding, evaluating, and understanding our sources. Knowing how they’re preserved and collected helps us along in that process as does experience. Conversations with our advisors and archivists are critical. It’s always a good idea to introduce yourself and your project ahead of time via email or phone. Familiarizing yourself with the collections and archive policies helps you be more productive when you arrive. Some archives require advance notice to retrieve certain collections from off-site storage. If possible, do the same once you arrive. Ask questions about the finding aids (always ask if there are more). They might interpret a category differently than you. Developing a good rapport with the archivist and the staff will help things flow smoothly. They might have suggestions of different things to look at and know of events or stories not immediately obvious from your preliminary preparation. While we often begin our research following process number one described above, the new discoveries and cool sources from process number two can quickly emerge.

Finally, I know that we all have had different experiences doing research. Many of you have also recently completed summer research trips. Sharing our individual experiences and processes doing research is a great way to collaborate and enhance our collective work in the subfield. If you have something to add or expand upon please add it in the comments below.

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in History at Purdue University and the founder of this blog. You can reach him via email at or on Twitter: @admcgregor85

3 thoughts on “Sport in the Archive: Research Reflections 

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Andrew McGregor at Sport in the American History blog has been researching Bud Wilkinson and his 1950s Oklahoma football dynasty for his dissertation. In his post, he describes hurdles that historians run into all of the time. Even though the University of Oklahoma is a public institution, the OU athletic department is neither keen to provide researchers access to their records and, perhaps worse, nor was the department under no obligation to archive its records. This is an common story for most historians. McGregor provides some excellent insights into the mechanics of the research process and advice on how to overcome spotty access to limited records.


    • Thanks for the question, Brett. I really enjoyed working in archives but found myself definitely more drawn to history and thinking about the stories the documents told. Archival research remains my favorite part of any project. I like reading papers and holding real pieces of history. Historical images are so powerful, too.

      I’m not sure I’d make a good collector or archivist myself though. I’m not good at making choices on what to keep and what to shred. I do have ideas on how I would organize or arrange different sports documents as a historian because I know what types of things I look for and the types of stories that interest me. I’m not sure if that is a good or a bad skill to have as an archivist (you know, that whole bias thing and making the collection reflect an argument or perspective).


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