Former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has deposited a collection of papers and other historical materials with the University of Florida’s George A. Smathers Libraries, establishing a significant collection spanning his multi-decade career in public service.
Over 800 boxes and more than 260,000 electronic files were delivered to the libraries in January. The collection documents over 46 years of public service by one of Florida’s most influential political figures. In addition to his time in the Senate, the collection documents his training and flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia mission in 1986 as well as aspects of his youth and earlier political career. Among Nelson’s collection is the flight suit he wore aboard Columbia and a Florida Gators bumper sticker he took to space.
“I am honored to have my papers and space collection deposited at the University of Florida, especially as a lifelong Gator,” Nelson said. “UF is a state and national resource that the public turns to for research and exploration. My papers will join UF's strong collections of Florida history, and I feel honored to have them alongside those of prominent Floridians."
The Nelson Collection will be processed, preserved and stored in the Smathers Libraries. Some internal committee documents and constituent correspondence, for instance, must be withheld for a period of time according to federal law, but most materials will be made available to the public after review by Nelson and processing by library staff.
Nelson’s papers will become the sixth Senate collection in the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History in the Special and Area Studies Collections Department, following those of Spessard Holland, George Smathers, Lawton Chiles, Connie Mack III and Bob Graham. The Libraries hold 60 additional collections related to Florida politics, including the papers of members of Congress, governors, a commissioner of agriculture, the Florida League of Women Voters and the Florida Defenders of the Environment. The Smathers Libraries are committed to expanding its political collections and plan to establish a Florida Political Papers Archive to highlight and publicize current and future collections.
In addition, the Libraries are preeminent among academic libraries in holdings of historical materials about Florida heritage, Judaica, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Anglo-American children’s literature. The University of Florida Digital Collections is a key collaborator and provides the digital platform for Special and Area Studies Collections, ensuring worldwide access to the portions of these important historical collections, and on many other topics.
“The University of Florida is honored that Sen. Nelson is archiving his political papers here at the Smathers Libraries,” UF President Kent Fuchs said. “Because of his extensive service to our state and the nation, I am delighted that he is entrusting us with his collection.”
Nelson’s family came to Florida in 1829, settling in Northwest Florida. Nelson was born in Miami, grew up in Melbourne and attended the University of Florida in the early 1960s where he was elected president of the freshman class and became a member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. He is an honorary member of Florida Blue Key. He transferred to Yale University, where he graduated in 1965 and earned a law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1968.
After serving as a captain in the U.S. Army and starting his law practice, he was first elected to office in 1972 as a member of the Florida House of Representatives. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1978 and, in January 1986, became the first member of the U.S. House to fly in space when he flew on the Space Shuttle Columbia as a Payload Specialist.
After serving as Florida’s treasurer, insurance commissioner and fire marshal in the 1990s, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000 and completed his political career after three terms. While serving in the Senate, he was the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, chair of the Science and Space Subcommittee and chair of the Senate Committee on Aging.
About the above photo: Then-U.S. Rep. Bill Nelson aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1986. This photo and the bumper sticker Nelson is holding in it are part of the collection of papers and other items he has deposited with UF’s Smathers Libraries. (Photo provided by UF)