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Jim Baggett on the Gems Few Know About in BPL Archives

Archivist James Baggett Jr. on the crosswalk between the Birmingham Public Library and Linn-Henley Research Library. He retired June 23. (Amarr Croskey, For The Birmingham Times)
By Roy L. Williams
Birmingham Public Library

Jim Baggett, the Birmingham Public Library’s award-winning head archivist for over 30 years, retired Friday, June 23.

As head of BPL’s Archives Department, Baggett has lectured and presented conference papers across the United States, Europe, and Iceland. He has won numerous awards, including being named in December 2022 as the Society of Alabama Archivists’ prestigious Marvin Yeomans Whiting Award, which is named after Baggett’s mentor who founded BPL’s Archives Department in 1976.

For three decades, Baggett has led BPL’s Archives Department that is world-renowned for its collection and has been used for research by nearly 500 book authors globally, including five Pulitzer Prize winners as well as several Academy Award-winning documentaries.

BPL Executive Director Janine Langston said Jim Baggett’s contributions have made BPL’s Archives Department a valuable resource for researchers across the world.

“It has been an honor to have Jim serve as a member of the BPL team,” Langston said. “He has dedicated his career to the collection and preservation of Birmingham’s history. Because of his work, researchers for generations to come will have access to this valuable information. Jim is a true Birmingham treasure, and we wish him the very best in his retirement. “

A Birmingham nativeBaggett has three degrees from the University of Alabama – bachelor’s degree in history (1986), master’s in public history (1988) and master’s in library and information Studies (1997). He has served on several boards, including 2022-23 president of the Alabama Historical Association, member of the Alabama State Records Advisory Board, Society of Alabama Archivists and Society of American Archivists, and the Southern Historical Association. Besides the Marvin Whiting Award, Baggett’s also been awarded Outstanding MLIS Alumni at the University of Alabama (2021), Eminent Librarian Award from the Alabama Library Association (2019) and the John Cotton Dana Library Public Relations Award from the American Library Association (2014)

In a Q&A with BPL Public Relations Director Roy Williams, Baggett talked about what it was like leading BPL Archives and his future post-retirement, including plans to write a book.

BPL: How does it feel to be retiring after over 30 years leading Archives here at BPL?

Baggett: “It feels strange to be leaving after 30 and a half years, but good also. I know BPL Archives is in good hands. My wife and will be looking forward to doing some other things for the rest of our years.”

BPL: What are some of your fondest memories working with patrons as head of BPL Archives?

Baggett: “I have met so many people over the years, who became great friends and co-workers. In archives, we get to work with researchers from all over the world, including professors, writers and students. That has always been a great part of the job.

“People come here every day to research their house, church, or neighborhood. People will come in and when we pull old files for them, they talk about how ‘That’s my grandfather’s house,’ or ‘That’s the store my grandfather used to own.’ There is a real connection to people’s lives in Birmingham here in our archives.

BPL: Who was your mentor at BPL?

Baggett: “I had the great fortune when I came here 30 years ago to work under Marvin Whiting, the library’s first archivist. He created the BPL Archives Department in 1976. I came in 1993. A lot of what is here and a lot of our success is credited back to Marvin. He taught me almost everything I know about being an archivist and being a historian.

“We always try to remember Marvin because he was a great person and am passionate about preserving Birmingham’s history and sharing it with the world.”

BPL: It is interesting you mention his name because you’ve won numerous awards, including the 2022 Marvin Whiting Award from the Society of Alabama Archivists. I bet that was really special to you.

Baggett: “The Society of Alabama Archivists gives that award each year to someone who has made a contribution to archives in the state. Last year they gave it to me. That was a great honor to me because Marvin was one of my all-time favorite people. I was touched by that. Marvin died in November 2010.”

BPL: Talk about how people from all over the world come to use BPL Archives to research books and papers. How many books have been researched here?

Baggett: “Last time I counted over 500 books have been researched here at BPL, which includes five Pulitzer Prize winners. We have had Academy Award-winning documentaries researched here and award-winning television shows. We have a curio from our collection on display at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C. Plus more in places all over the country and around the world. We have a heavily used collection, not only people from around the world but also local folks.

“People come in every day to research their house, their church, their neighborhood, and school. We are a lot of things to a lot of people. Birmingham is very fortunate to have an archives like ours.”

BPL: I don’t know of any library in our state that has an archives like this.

Baggett: “They don’t, it is rare to have an archives like this anywhere in a public library.”

BPL: A lot of people might not know what is stored in an archives collection.  Give some examples of items you have in BPL’s Archives Department.

Baggett: “We have many things. We are the official archives for the city, so we preserve many records for the City of Birmingham. We have government archives back to the founding of the city. We have archives for a number of churches and synagogues. We have letters, diaries, scrapbooks, photographs, maps, architectural drawings, office files, ledgers.

“As the official city archives, we house old Birmingham jail dockets including the jail docket of 1963 recording the arrest of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement and the adults who marched with him during the 1963 campaign.

BPL: Do we have anything related to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing?

Baggett: “We do. We have police files on the 16th Street Baptist church bombing, archives. You can’t research civil rights in Birmingham without coming here. We have the premier collection on our civil rights history.”

BPL: You have spoken all over the world. Talk about that.

Baggett: “I have had a great opportunity to talk about archives across the United States, England and Iceland. This collection is world renowned and being connected to that created a lot of opportunities for me to meet interesting people and see interesting things. I am very grateful for that.”

BPL: After retirement, what will you do?

Baggett: “I will continue to do some public speaking. I also will do some freelance writing. I write for the Birmingham Times, Birmingham Watch. And I have a book project that I am working on.”

BPL: Any closing comments?

Baggett: “I have had a great career here at the library, I have had a great life here in Birmingham. I look forward to whatever comes next. I really don’t know what retirement is going to be yet, but I will find out soon.”