A semi-truck backed up to the loading dock at Cowles Library at Drake University early Monday morning and began unloading 40 years of Iowa and American history.
The Americans with Disabilities Act. Two Farm Bills. A presidential candidacy. Thirty-seven steak frys. Bills, books, reports, constituent letters and emails perhaps beyond counting.
In all, 800 boxes of documents, media and mementos were hauled into the university archives on the library's second floor, representing the bulk of now-retired U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin's papers.
The long-serving Democrat and liberal stalwart left the Senate this month after 30 years in office (and another 10 in the U.S. House before that). Drake University and the Harkin Institute for Public Policy and Citizen Engagement are his papers' final resting place, where they'll be organized, cataloged, digitized and made available to anyone with an appreciation for politics, public policy or history.
"The end goal is access," said Hope Grebner, the Drake University archivist tasked with bringing order to the collection.
She guessed it would take her a week just to get the boxes — now massed in a pile on the concrete floor — properly arranged on the gray steel shelves. Then comes the sorting, arranging, the creation of indices and guides to ease the work of scholars and historians.
Those 800 boxes aren't even the whole story. A few dozen more boxes were already in place on Monday, shipped in from Harkin's offices in Des Moines and across Iowa. Two more pallets are on their way in from Washington, D.C., via FedEx, mostly full of awards and mementos.
Already resting on one shelf was a supersized photo of Harkin in denim and a Deere hat, holding a piglet by its hind legs — apparently about to do something for which his successor, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, has more recently become famous.
The archives also will house something called a Drobo — a piece of computer hardware containing six terabytes of data — saving for posterity email from constituents, photos and video and even the Word documents saved on staffers' computers.
There's even a way to archive Harkin's Twitter, Facebook and YouTube postings. And archived they will be.
That the Harkin papers represent an incredible trove of primary source data for researchers interested in the Americans with Disabilities Act, U.S. farm policy or the Affordable Care Act is obvious. Likewise Harkin's 1992 presidential bid and perhaps his South Vietnam "tiger cage" revelations as a young staffer.
But who knows what else the collection might contain? Harkin himself may not remember, Grebner said. Treasures are waiting to be found.
"It's exciting to see everything arrive and to think of the richness of these historical documents," Harkin Institute Director Marsha Ternus said. "They cover so many years, and so much legislation that was groundbreaking and important."
Ternus said she's particularly excited about the vast collection of constituent case work — emails and letters from everyday Iowans that an enterprising social scientist could mine for insights into the daily challenges and concerns of people from the 1970s to the 2010s.
The work of organizing and making Harkin's papers accessible will take many months. But Grebner, Ternus and others are aiming to make at least the documents relating to the Americans with Disabilities Act available this summer — in time for the 25th anniversary of Harkin's signature legislative accomplishment.
The timing is fortuitous: documents generated by Senate committees cannot be made public until 25 years after their creation, meaning the ADA materials will be accessible for the first time just this year.
"It's fortunate that one of the most important pieces of legislation that he worked on will be one of the first things that we can make public," Ternus said.
Eventually, Institute staffers want to build programs and exhibits around the materials found in the collection — perhaps on subjects like the ADA or Harkin's annual steak fry fundraiser.