If one were to choose a date for the establishment of the Western History Collections, it would be April 5, 1927. That was the day that University of Oklahoma president William B. Bizzell and oil executive Frank Phillips signed an agreement establishing a special collection of historical materials documenting the American West.
The signing represented the culmination of extended negotiations between Frank Phillips, history professor Edward Everett Dale, attorney Patrick Hurley, and President Bizzell. Dale, a student of Frederick Jackson Turner, shared his former professor’s enthusiasm for the American frontier and wanted the collection for his graduate students at the University of Oklahoma. Phillips also had a strong interest in the American West and hoped to establish a western history collection in the Bartlesville, Oklahoma, area. It was Patrick Hurley, then a successful attorney and friend of both Dale and Phillips, who acted as the intermediary that convinced Phillips to support the development of the collection at OU.
Phillips agreed to give the University of Oklahoma $2,000 a year for 5 years, or $10,000 in all. After the initial 5-year period, the university was to continue developing the collection. In return the University of Oklahoma agreed to maintain the collection as a separate unit and to call it the Frank Phillips Collection. While $2,000 per year was not a fortune, it did buy a lot of books, manuscripts and historical photographs in the early 1930s.
Dale became the first curator of the Phillips Collection and controlled its acquisition policy from 1927 until his retirement in 1952. Dale bought widely and his acquisitions documented the history of the whole American Southwest and included the Spanish and Mexican periods, American Indian history, and, of course, his favorite, the westward expansion of the American frontier. Geographically the Phillips Collection expanded to document the trans-Mississippi West with an emphasis on the southwestern region.
The area and subjects were not the only parameters that Dale established. He expanded the collection’s acquisitions beyond books and included manuscript collections, maps, oral histories, and photographs. By the time of his retirement in 1952, Dale had developed the Phillips Collection into a significant library of 8,500 books, more than 30,000 manuscripts, maps, typescripts, and 4,500 photographs. It was, perhaps, the photographs that ultimately did the most to increase awareness of the Phillips Collection as an important regional resource.
In 1948, a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation financed the start of the Manuscript Division in the University of Oklahoma Library. The university selected Gaston Litton as archivist and James Babcock as his assistant. The mission of the manuscript division was to acquire and make available Oklahoma and Western manuscript collections for researchers at the university. Litton and Babcock ran an aggressive acquisition program and by 1952, the manuscripts division reported holding more than 250 collections along with numerous maps, sound recordings, and photographs. By 1960, it held 1,500 collections and rivaled the Phillips Collections as a research resource on campus.
The Phillips Collection and the University Libraries manuscript division operated independently of each other until 1957. In that year, Arrell M. Gibson accepted a joint appointment as professor of history and curator of both the Phillips Collection and the Manuscript Division. That allowed the two special collections to operate under a single administrator and, ultimately, led to the consolidation of the two. In 1967, the University Libraries administration merged the two collections into what is now the well-known Western History Collections.