The Value of "Papers"
February/March 2010

by Dirck Halstead

This week I packed up about four decades' worth of files and tapes that were in my house as I prepared to move.

Two hefty guys from the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas, where I am a senior fellow, showed up at my house and started packing hundreds of tapes into file boxes, while I concentrated on going through half a dozen file cabinets that I really hadn't touched since my arrival in Austin from Washington in the spring of 2002.

I really just flipped through the hundreds of file folders containing thousands of pages of bills, UPI bureau reports, pitches for assignments to Time magazine. I started to slow down, my attention drawn to a particular communication or another.

When I wrote my book "Moments in TIME" in 2006, I did not go through these files. Instead, like most photographers, I relied on my memory based on images I had taken. But now, I have finally realized why institutions such as the Briscoe Center put the highest priority not on the great images a photographer may have made, or the books an author may have produced, or the scripts that such legends as Walter Cronkite wrote during his years at CBS, but rather on the daily dairies, communications, even expense accounts (which in my case were probably some of my best creative writing) that make up a person's life.

I have always considered myself a historian. I have just finished reading a book called "Apaches," a history of those Indians by James L. Haley. It is a superb book on that subject. A look at the notes and bibliography in the rear of the book reveals how many sources the author relied on for his research. Sources were hundreds of books, abstracts and papers that allowed Haley to weave together a cultural portrait.

Future historians in search of information about the presidents I have covered, or the Vietnam War, or the siege of Beirut may initially be lured to my archives by the well-known images, but once they are fixed on their research path, they will really want to see the "supporting evidence." What did I think at the time? What were the obstacles and victories I experienced?

Fortunately, over the years, I had just stuck these papers in filing cabinets, eventually filling half a dozen. I never went into these cabinets. So it was a surprise when I found myself suddenly reliving half-remembered memories of some very major events in world history.

As I was marking the last cartons, I began to think about the real value in terms of history of all those pieces of paper, and then started to wonder about what happened after I left Washington in 2002. Yes, I have written a lot about these things on the pages of The Digital Journalist, but there was no longer that paper trail. In those filing cabinets was nothing less than history. It was all arranged chronologically. Not as bits of information on a Web site or on a hard drive. The kind of history that future historians will assemble long after I am gone.

Who knows? My expense accounts may live in history.

© Dirck Halstead
Editor and Publisher of The Digital Journalist

Dirck Halstead was Time magazine's Senior White House Photographer for 29 years. He now is the Publisher and Editor of The Digital Journalist, the monthly online magazine for visual journalism, and a Senior Fellow at the Center For American History at the University of Texas in Austin. His new book, MOMENTS IN TIME, published by Harry N. Abrams, is in bookstores, and available from

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