Special Collections and University Archives

After several years of work, Howard Coble’s papers are now fully organized and available for research at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s University Libraries.

Coble speaking at UNCG in 2009.

The Congressman J. Howard Coble Papers is one of the largest collections at UNCG’s Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA). The papers were a donation from Congressman Howard Coble, who served North Carolina’s Sixth District for nearly 30 years.

University Libraries received the initial collection donation in 2007, as well as two additions during Coble’s life and another after his death in 2015.  Manuscripts Archivist Jennifer Motszko directed me during the last two years of organizing the collection.  As a student worker in SCUA in 2012, I was familiar with the legendary Coble collection, primarily because of its enormity. I was thrilled to be brought on board with this collection in August 2015.

The collection was organized and arranged with the help of funds donated by Congressman Coble, his supporters, friends and family. Finishing the collection included item-level organization, light preservation work, labeling, and description in the online inventory.

After two years of fits and starts, punctuated by a detour into work with another collection, I wrapped up arranging and describing the collection in July 2017. As a new archivist, it was one of the most rewarding experiences I have had so far.

Working with Coble’s papers let me see many archival theories and best practices put into action – including everything from organizing government documents, to protecting private student and health information. Due to its size and varied materials, the collection also let me experience working with new formats, including artifacts and textiles. 

The completed collection comprises 273.8 linear feet, which is 193 boxes of materials. The collection includes a large portion of materials from his career as a legislator, as well as materials related to his service in the Coast Guard, personal materials like family scrapbooks, and audiovisual materials.

Howard Coble in the U.S. Coast Guard, ca. 1950s.
Coble in the U.S. Coast Guard, ca. 1950s.

As I mentioned, the collection was mythic in my mind for its proportions.  It was nearly double the size of the largest collection I had previously organized (the International Double Reed Society records, also housed at UNCG).

Imagine my surprise last August when an additional 30 boxes of constituent correspondence was discovered at the National Archives! The collection was also instructive in patience, and best practices for growing collections.

The Coble collection has a little bit of something for everyone – you can see a Styrofoam boater hat used in one of Coble’s campaigns, to a letter to Coble signed by Bruce Springsteen thanking him for his work on intellectual property issues.

Throughout his time as a Congressman, Coble and his staff were known for attention to resolving constituents’ problems on a case-by-case level. His attention to detail in relation to his constituents’ lives was legendary – you could name your high school in his district, and he would begin talking about the team’s mascot.

In addition to the personal attention to his constituents, Coble was also involved in major legislative and historic changes throughout his tenure as a Congressman. His papers offer a unique glimpse into the political climate of both North Carolina and the country for nearly 30 years.

Some of the topics covered by the collection include the tobacco and textile industries in N.C., immigration, the Persian Gulf and Iraq Wars, same-sex marriage, the Clinton impeachment proceedings, and the rise of the tea party movement.

I was fascinated by the breadth of opinions expressed by constituents. It was both comforting and difficult to see many of the same issues we struggle with today being discussed in letters from 1985 – debates on health care, civil rights, the role of America in foreign countries, and the perennial favorite of taxes have been contentious topics for years.

Coble speaking at a tobacco tax rally, ca. 1980s.

Despite the continuity of certain political issues, the changing of political and social life was evident, particularly on some hot button issues. Most constituents were unanimously opposed to same-sex marriage as late as the early 2000s – but the growth in dissenting opinions over the course of Coble’s career was self-evident and reflective of the developments at the federal and court level.

I certainly lingered over issues that I saw paralleled in today’s life, taking a few seconds to read a line or two about someone’s life from 1985. Despite differences in opinion or feeling removed by the span of time, every constituent’s letter was touching because it represented the American ideal of participatory government.

UNCG’s University Libraries is thrilled to be able to offer full access to Coble’s papers and let patrons catch of glimpse of this political and social history. Staff in Special Collections and University Archives worked to arrange, describe, and make these papers available to students, researchers, faculty, and the general public.
Researchers can access the online inventory to browse the holdings in the collection. To access the materials, please contact SCUA via emailor phoneto schedule an appointment.

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