The locked room on the third floor of the University of Iowa’s main library isn’t a place typically bustling with visitors.
“It’s a secure area, so we don’t often bring a lot of people back here,” Greg Prickman, head of the library’s special collections, said of the special collections room. “Or people with cameras.”
Except for, well, special occasions.
Like, one day last month, when a crew from NBC’s “Today” show visited the room to film a segment about the iconic TV journalist Tom Brokaw donating his personal papers and artifacts -- ranging from his high school yearbook to rocks he picked up from the Great Wall of China -- to the University of Iowa Libraries.
The resulting segment featuring Brokaw, who became co-anchor of the “Today” show in 1976 and later anchored “NBC Nightly News” for 22 years, aired last Thursday.
Brokaw, who attended University of Iowa during his freshman year in 1958–59, donated his papers in November 2016. Library staff spent the following 13 months cataloging the collection, which, as of Feb. 1, is accessible to the public.
“I would call it a big deal,” Prickman said. “It is really high profile. Given who he is, this collection easily could’ve gone elsewhere.”
In a November 2016 appearance on the “Today” show, Brokaw said he was “reluctant” at first to donate his personal items. He also said University of Iowa staff proved “persistent” and he was impressed by the library’s facilities.
“I started going through my material and…I was absolutely astonished by how much I had and how important it was,” Brokaw said.
"The Papers of Tom Brokaw: A Life and a Career," includes 87 boxes full of notebooks, photos and other documents relating to Brokaw’s five decades in journalism. Much of it had previously been stored in the garage of his New York home.
“It’s staggering, really, to see this sweep of historical events from the perspective of one person,” Prickman said. “He witnessed and was present for so much.”
The collection includes appointment books from 1973 to 2002 showing scribbled reminders such as “call Bill Gates” or “lunch with Condie Rice” and notes about getting a haircut or appearing on “The Late Show” with David Letterman.
One box includes letters from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev, former U.S. presidents dating back to Richard Nixon as well as birthday cards from the actor Tom Hanks. There are dozens of press badges for events such the 1988 Summer Olympics, held in Seoul, South Korea, and President Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day ceremony in January 2017.
Also in the collection is a copy of transcripts from Nixon's White House tapes. As Brokaw explained in the “Today” show segment, the pages are coated with stains from the time he read the transcripts while eating fried chicken made by his wife, Meredith Lynn Auld.
The bulk of the prep work was done by University of Iowa School of Library and Information Sciences graduate student Elizabeth Riordan. Riordan, who got her undergraduate degree at Augustana College in Rock Island, considered the job a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”
“I’m here to learn and there’s no better way to learn than by doing,” she said. “It was exciting because I knew how important this would be.”
Over the 360 hours she spent organizing and cataloging the collection, Riordan ended up getting to know Brokaw’s life, career and handwriting “quite well,” she said.
In fact, when she met Brokaw during a recent visit, she introduced herself as the “one who has been rifling through your life.”
She found many examples of Brokaw’s “true partnership” with his wife, Meredith, boxes full of fan mail from people who had read his book, “The Greatest Generation,” and even a few references to Iowa.
“He takes moments when he stumbles and he really learns from them. Leaving Iowa was one of those for him,” she said. “This is a place where he grew a lot.”
After leaving the University of Iowa, Brokaw attended and graduated from University of South Dakota. He has returned to Iowa City several times, has earned an honorary doctorate from Iowa and gave the commencement address there in May 2010.
The archiving process has brought Brokaw back several times within the last two years, including last month when he attended a men's basketball game between Iowa and the University of Wisconsin.
“He has had strong connections to the university since he was a student,” Prickman said. “He really feels strongly about his time here and has a soft spot for Iowa.”
Special collections staff members are now working on getting the collection in front of students and researchers, particularly for journalism, history, English and political science classes. They are also working on putting together an exhibit in honor of the 20th anniversary of “The Greatest Generation,” which is expected to open in September.
Prickman said other exhibits and events using Brokaw’s papers will follow.
“Once it’s known that this stuff is here, the possibilities are endless of what could be learned from this,” he said.