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Ouachita Baptist archivist finds history specialOriginally Published January 20, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated January 18, 2013 at 3:04 p.m.
Wendy Richter is the archivist at Ouachita Baptist University after having been the state archivist for several years. Richter, unlike many new hires, is already familiar with the responsibilities of her position. She worked in the same position at OBU before taking the job with the Arkansas History Commission.
Wendy Richter was settling into her fourth day back on the job as archivist at Ouachita Baptist University. Until recently, she had served as state historian and director of the Arkansas History Commission, a position she’d held since 2005. Now she is back where she said she’s happiest — heading up Riley-Hickingbotham Library’s Special Collections.
“I was director of the History Commission for seven years,” she said, “but I didn’t get to do the kind of work that drew me [to history] in the first place. I’m so glad to be here, working with the material.”
In addition to directing the university’s archives, Richter also previously taught Arkansas history at Ouachita. The Hot Springs native first came to the university in 1990 after discovering “quite by accident” that she had a passion for history. She grew excited recalling her first experience with old records.
“One of my professors at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock assigned me to visit the History Commission. I was doing a research paper on 1820s Hot Springs, and that was when I first began delving into old county records,” Richter said. “The records showed that Hot Springs was becoming a resort town — that people and businesses were hosting more and more visitors. When I got to hold those documents in my hands, I was hooked. I was fascinated by the care and preservation of historic records.”
Richter, a graduate of Jessieville High School, had considered teaching piano, “but I was already doing that,” she said. “I started learning the piano when I was 5, but I never thought of myself as a performer. I realized I could continue teaching piano even without a degree in music, so I changed my direction.”
She holds a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and a master’s degree in public history from UALR, and received a doctorate in heritage studies from Arkansas State University. A certified archivist, Richter said her training initially prepared her to work with the public, as opposed to teaching.
“When I decided to change my major from music, UALR was just beginning its public-history program. It produces not teachers, but professionals who work in museums or other cultural-resource settings, which was what I wanted to do. I was the third person to graduate from that program.”
Early in her career, Richter worked for Weyerhaeuser as a records specialist. She also became active with the Garland County Historical Society, editing its annual journal, The Record.
“That got me interested in local history,” she said.
An opportunity to work for the History Commission as a records analyst took her away from Weyerhaeuser; three years later, in 1990, she went to work in Ouachita’s Special Collections.
Though not trained as a teacher, “the [Ouachita] administration realized I knew Arkansas history and thought it might be a good idea for me to teach that class.”
She taught history, as well as archival administration, until departing seven years ago to become director of the History Commission.
“It was scary at first,” Richter said of teaching. “Students are very sharp, and they ask good and challenging questions. They forced me to deepen my knowledge.”
One area of study she emphasized was the history of the development of Arkansas’ image.
“It hasn’t always been the greatest,” she said with a laugh. “We explored the geographical influence of the ‘hillbilly’ and that of the poor sharecropper of the Delta.”
She said those two “very different images” were perpetuated through such writings as those found in the Arkansas Traveler. The state had a negative image until former President Bill Clinton and such Arkansas-based corporations as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Dillard’s Inc. became famous.
She said Clark County itself has great historical significance, about which she has “learned a lot” through her work with the county’s historical association. One of the county’s most important historical landmarks is its courthouse, built in 1899. Special collections received many county records from the courthouse, especially after the 1997 tornado, Richter said.
“We improved access to those records,” she said. “We created a name index for them, and we also received grants to purchase supplies to help us better preserve the documents.”
As director of the History Commission, Richter led fundraising efforts, computerized its preservation techniques and served on the editorial board and wrote entries for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
“It’s a great introductory tool for anybody doing research or just wanting to find out more about our state’s history,” she said. “I have three entries pending right now, two of them about towns that are now under Lake Ouachita.”
At the commission, Richter managed a staff of 25 and helped raise $1 million in her first year as director.
“When I took over, there were no computers for patrons
to use,” she said. “There was a card catalog and the memory of the staff.”
Richter was only the fourth director of the commission since it was established in 1905, and was its first female director.
Personal changes and the arrival of grandchildren in her life helped Richter decide to return to Ouachita. Her biggest challenge will be the archiving of former 4th District Congressman Mike Ross’ official papers, which Ross donated to the library in December.
Richter and her husband, Larry, live in Hot Spring County and have two children.