Arts & Culture

A window into history: Tom Brokaw's special collection, exhibit opens at UI

Three passports which are part of “The Papers of Tom Brokaw: A Life & Career” in the Special Collections department at the University of Iowa Main Library in Iowa City on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Three passports which are part of “The Papers of Tom Brokaw: A Life & Career” in the Special Collections department at the University of Iowa Main Library in Iowa City on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

When Elizabeth Riordan found a pile of small rocks at the bottom of a bag of tangled press passes, she almost threw them away. But something made her pause.

She was cataloging more than 50 years of materials from the papers and memorabilia donated to the University of Iowa by broadcast news legend Tom Brokaw. In his storied career as a reporter and anchor for NBC, he had covered everything from the Civil Rights movement to the fall of the Berlin Wall to 9/11.

Brokaw spent just one year as a student at the UI from 1958-1959 before transferring to the University of South Dakota, but he has remained active as an alumni.

“For more than half a century, I’ve been privileged to see history unfold, up close and personal,” he said on the “Today” show on Feb. 1 in a special segment about the donation. “Wherever I went, I took memories of my Midwestern upbringing with me ... Iowa always kept in touch with me.”

He donated the materials to the UI Main Library’s Special Collections department last year. Since they arrived in September, graduate assistant Elizabeth Riordan, with the help of the head of special collections Greg Prickman and processing coordinator Jacque Roethler, has spent months cataloging the boxes of letters, photographs, notebooks and documents.

She sifted through historic mementos like photos of Brokaw with South African President Nelson Mandela and interview questions he prepared before talking with former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Other things weren’t so obvious in their importance but still help paint a portrait of Brokaw’s life and career.

“You have everything from, ‘I can’t believe this is in here!’ to the mundane. There’s correspondence from all sorts of different people. There’s one from Jackie Onassis in there, and I just absolutely love it because it calls Washington, D.C., ‘Babylon,’” Riordan said. “And every once in a while I’d come across something in there and be like, ‘What is this?’”

That’s what she thought when she found the rocks. So she asked Brokaw’s assistant, who told her the rocks were from the Great Wall of China, and Brokaw had picked them up while on assignment there in the 1980s, as the country was undergoing rapid changes.

And that’s part of the value of a collection like this, said Prickman. It’s not just a picture of one person’s life and career, but a window into the history he covered, as well as the way journalism has shifted and changed over the years.

“Journalism, political science, history, American studies — there are a lot of different angles that people could come at this material from,” he said. “It’s not just Tom Brokaw, famous reporter, it’s the things he was covering. You can learn a much more nuanced view of some of this history by seeing what it was like to the people who were there.”

The collection is now available for the public, who can use a digital finding aide at to learn more about it. People interested in seeing specific things or materials related to certain topics can visit Special Collections and request to see them.

In addition to the public, academics and students can benefit from the material, Prickman said. Professors have already been in to discuss ways to use the papers in their classes.

“I’m really excited just for people to come and use this collection and see what they discover for themselves,” Prickman said.

The library also is preparing an exhibit of selections from the collection, which will open in September in the Main Library Gallery, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the publication of Brokaw’s book, “The Greatest Generation.”


“We do have really great material related to that book and the response to that book, as well as other general highlights,” Prickman said. “It will be an opportunity for the public to come and see more of the material.”

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