If you want to talk about the recent history of Southwest Virginia, you can’t get far without mentioning Rick Boucher.
The Abingdon Democrat spent seven years in the state Senate before being elected to Congress as Representative for Virginia’s 9th Congressional District in 1982, which at the time extended from the western tip of the state as far east as Craig County. He held that seat for 28 years, making him the longest-serving representative in the history of the district.
Now, the former lawmaker’s personal collection of documents and photos from his career are available to the public. Boucher donated his papers to the University Libraries at Virginia Tech — all 76 boxes of them. (Disclosure: Boucher is a member of Cardinal News’ advisory board but board members have no say in news decisions.)
An archivist from the Special Collections and University Archives worked with Boucher for nearly a year to catalog and preserve the more than 6,000 items in the collection.
Boucher explained that the items show the inner workings of the legislative process at the state and federal level. “My hope is that young people and students will access the collection and that it might inspire people to be involved in public service themselves,” he said.
“We talked a lot at home about policy around the table, and about constructive outcomes for problems,” Boucher recalled growing up in Abingdon in a bipartisan household, his mother serving as chair of the Democratic Party in Washington County, and his Republican father working as commonwealth’s attorney of the county.
“I think it’s important that young people know the value of public service, not of partisan politics,” he said.
“He has such a repository of information about everyone who was anyone in Virginia politics for 40 years,” said Bess Pittman, the Tech project archivist who spent nearly a year processing the collection. “Boucher was involved in every aspect of life in Virginia in one way or another during his time” as a legislator, she said.
What’s in Boucher’s 40-year collection
Within Boucher’s extensive collection, viewers will find everything from speech scripts and correspondence to VHS tapes and awards.
Some of the documents include draft components of memorable pieces of legislation for Boucher, much of it hand-written.
Boucher co-sponsored the first piece of legislation that allowed commercial content online. It was signed in early 1992 as President George H.W. Bush was leaving office. “It wasn’t something that came about overnight,” Boucher explained.
Boucher chaired a subcommittee that oversaw the National Science Foundation, which at the time had a major role in advancing computer networks. “In those days, it was actually a violation of law to have commercial content on those nascent networks — educational content only,” he said. “But it was clear to me that the time had come that the law should be broadened.”
Another notable folder of documents reflects Boucher’s work on the American Clean Energy Security Act, which passed the House of Representatives in 2009. The bill, which would have put a national limit on greenhouse gas emissions, was never discussed or voted on in the Senate, but Boucher’s papers follow its progress: from written statements and notes from hearings of the House subcommittee on energy and air quality, to presentations made in committee and on the House floor, and the assembled draft of the legislation. The journey from subcommittee to House vote, he said, took two years.
Boucher left Congress after being defeated by Republican Morgan Griffith for reelection in 2010. Boucher was a partner at international law firm Sidley Austin in Washington, D.C., for 10 years after leaving Congress. He’s now retired and enjoys bicycling and traveling. He splits his time between homes in Washington and Grayson counties.
At the state service level, Boucher pointed out two notable pieces of legislation that have documents in the collection.
First, comprehensive reform of the state’s drug laws in 1979. That law allowed the first medical use of marijuana in the nation.
Boucher also noted from the State Senate files a 1980 law that reformed Virginia’s criminal sexual assault laws, which he said dignified the role of women in the court process. “It disallowed the use of evidence of general reputation,” which was often used against sexual assault victims even though it was irrelevant, he said.
How to organize a career’s worth of documents
Pittman, who specializes in projects like this one, said Boucher’s collection is relatively large. But his organization of the files through the years made it easier to start the process of evaluating it.
“Collections come into the archives in all kinds of states,” Pittman said, ranging from shoe boxes and garbage bags to tidy banker-size boxes.
She explained that collection processing begins with taking a broad survey of the items and looking for immediate issues that could impact preservation efforts, like moisture or insect damage. Then the work starts to catalog each item and add details to help researchers find and use the material.
Boucher was involved in the process, Pittman said, walking her through the boxes to give an idea of what they each contained. He was also helpful in identifying the subjects and contexts of many of the photographs in the collection — a process that would have taken Pittman a great deal of time otherwise. “It’s incredibly valuable in terms of making those photographs useful for people,” she said.
This kind of gift from a former lawmaker isn’t unusual.
Virginia Tech’s libraries also hold the papers of William Wampler, Boucher’s predecessor in the 9th District. Bob Goodlatte, Representative in the 6th District (and another member of our advisory board), donated his collection to Liberty University. Jim Olin, Goodlatte’s predecessor, gave his to Roanoke College. Also from the 6th District, Washington & Lee University has the papers of Caldwell Butler, while the University of Virginia has Justice Richard Poff’s.
These gifts don’t necessarily go to the person’s alma mater; in many cases, the person of interest chooses a school that has ties to their career or the region where they worked.
The strength of Virginia Tech’s libraries was one of the reasons Boucher chose it for donating his collection, rather than either of his alma maters, Roanoke College and UVa. He knew Tech would have the “digital expertise,” he said, to make the documents accessible “to anyone who had interest in it, in an easy-to-access format.”
Boucher also worked with four university presidents and various other school administrators over the years, helping them get federal funding for projects on campus.
How to view the collection (and why a trip to Blacksburg may be required)
The public can view a small digital exhibit online that contains around 200 items from the collection. Archivists will be adding additional content to the digital collection over time.
Digitizing items is a time-consuming process, as it requires using flatbed scanners to scan pages at very high quality, Pittman explained. Those high-quality images take up a lot of digital space.
Instead of trying to digitize every single item, Pittman said that archivists look for eye-catching items where researchers would be most likely to start their research. They might illustrate the biggest achievements of the person’s collection or garner interest from people who aren’t familiar with the person’s work or life.
Beyond what’s available online, Pittman encourages people to visit the archives. She said a lot of people don’t know the archives are a resource for them. But indeed, they’re for the public. “You don’t have to know what you’re looking for,” she said. “We’re trained to help you find what you’re interested in.”