NACOGDOCHES, Texas — He collects, organizes, indexes and safeguards Stephen F. Austin State University’s history through its archival collections. He helps students, faculty, staff and community members conduct in-depth research on East Texas. He interviews alumni about their experiences at SFA. He speaks with donors on topics ranging from East Texas lumber towns to World War II tanks.
All of this and more has earned Chris Cotton, university archives and research coordinator at SFA’s East Texas Research Center in the Steen Library, one of eight President’s Achievement Awards presented this year.
“It is such an honor to be a recipient, and it is really rewarding to know that my colleagues think so highly of me,” Cotton said.
This year, Cotton is extra busy serving on the committee that’s setting the scene for SFA’s centennial celebrations.
“The university’s upcoming centennial is something that is very exciting to be able to participate in directly,” he said. “As a historian and archivist, I firmly believe an understanding and recognition of the past will help SFA successfully move forward for our next 100 years.”
From 2016 to 2018, Cotton worked as an ETRC graduate assistant. In 2019, he was hired as the center’s archives associate. By 2022, he was the university archives and research coordinator managing ETRC’s student workers, several of whom have gone on to work in libraries or pursue a graduate education in library science.
The secret to his success is customer satisfaction, according to one of his nominations.
“Chris gives every researcher his maximum attention. Whether it is a student, faculty member or community member, I am impressed by the lengths to which he goes each and every time to make sure they get the most from their archival experience. He is adept at figuring out exactly what a person is looking for and then finding the information in the depths of the ETRC.”
Cotton said he believes that connecting ETRC patrons with the past in a tangible, hands-on way through archival materials can help them more fully connect with the past.
“In addition, helping our patrons find that missing piece of information or that story that brings all of their research together is incredibly rewarding,” he said.
Cotton works closely with professors to design archival visits and projects to improve undergraduate student learning and retention. For example, he has collaborated with Dr. Michael Martin, SFA professor of English and creative writing, for the past two years to help students with their projects in Martin’s New-Lumberjack Experience honors course.
“The success of these projects and my students has greatly depended on all the time, energy and effort of Chris Cotton,” Martin said. “The students sense his interest, and they engage him every time they are in the archives.”
For this class, Cotton takes time from his regular duties to introduce students to the archives, help them choose research topics and work with them throughout their entire projects.
“Each day that my class is in the library, Chris makes himself available to the students, always looking for new and additional materials they may request,” Martin said. “After the students have gathered the research and built their posters, Chris attends the Honors Research Symposium, listens to the students practice their talks, and offers encouragement and suggestions.”
Cotton has become a go-to staff member when students need help in general, according to another nomination.
“Random students have started to come to Chris to get help with various types of research outside the archival realm or ask him to read their papers before they turn them in.”
Cotton said he’s happy to help anyone working on historical topics.
“The best part of my job is being surrounded by history every day and getting to share that history with the community.”