Organizing the Chaos: Baxter Polk

By on August 17, 2012

Head of the library, Baxter Polk, by Urbici Soler

Finding Baxter Polk in Special Collections on a shelf instead of in an office is somewhat ironic, because from 1936 to 1973 Baxter Polk worked here on the border as Head Librarian. Now, “Head Librarian” at a college was a prestigious title for the twenty-two year old Polk fresh out of the University of Oklahoma’s Library Services program in 1936; unfortunately that was all the position had going for it initially, a prestigious title. Upon arriving at the College of Mines, Polk found the school’s meagre collection of books crammed into the third floor of Kelly Hall, and while there were never enough resources, those that could be pulled from the budget were hotly contested among the various growing departments.

Polk had been hired as part of an effort to get the College of Mines accredited by the Southern Association of Secondary Schools and Colleges. Such an accreditation required a qualified librarian with the equivalent of a master’s degree in those days. Polk‘s arrival coincided with a massive re-envisioning of the school’s purpose from that of a mining school to a regional college. Although this is a tremendous undertaking unto itself, Polk claimed that two things made the task that much more difficult. First, the state of Texas deliberately operated on as a small of a budget as possible, and second, from that limited budget the Texas College of Mines received less than what Polk considered was its fair share. Baxter Polk’s job was thus made three times as hard as it ought to have been. TCM was the most underfunded school in an underfunded system, and on top of this it was attempting massive expansion in every conceivable department.

However, in spite the chronic lack of funds and facilities, Polk believed that excellence and professionalism did a great deal to improve the quality of the library. He claimed that the job required more than technical proficiency stating, “You’ve got to study, not just the literature of your so-called profession, but you’ve got to study literature. Period.” When challenged about making controversial materials available during World War II and McCarthyism, Polk stated that as a librarian he was “an agent for truth wherever it may be found.”

As Head Librarian, Baxter Polk helped propel the university into its present iteration. As a member of the faculty he helped perpetuate a culture of excellence and dedication that persists even today.

If you are at all interested in investigating his legacy to this school you can just walk down past the UTEP library. However, if you wish to investigate the man himself I would suggest listening to oral history “Interview no. 85.” His voice immediately betrays his past hobby as an amateur thespian, and the dead words of the transcript conceal his passion for his profession and this school. However, if you can’t make it down to the library you can still read the transcript at http://digitalcommons.utep.edu/interviews/85/.

Note: See the Baxter Polk Collection for more about the man himself and the photographs were found in the Nancy Hamilton Papers.

Baxter Polk

The original library might fit within a single floor of our new building

Posted in: History
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Andy Klooster served as an assistant in the C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department of the UTEP Library. He is currently an MA student in History at UTEP.