Archives, Historical Memory, and the Power of Place

Cratis Williams Reading Room

Guest post by Cody Miller. Cody is a graduate of the Appalachian Studies M.A. program at Appalachian State University and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in environmental history at the University of Maine.

One of the reasons I decided to become a historian was because of my fascination with how people navigate the relationship between the past and present. The main reason why I chose to become an environmental historian, however, was because of my even greater fascination with people’s relationship with the past and present in the context of place. After interning as a reference archivist for Belk Library’s Special Collections, I have learned a great deal. Yet one of the most rewarding aspects of my internship was gaining a better appreciation of the important role archivists play in fostering researchers’ understanding of the dynamic intersections between the past, present, and place.

This was particularly evident when a special mother-daughter research team from the West Coast visited Special Collections for a few days in September. When her daughter asked what she wanted for her birthday, the mother decided she wanted to take a trip to Boone to explore the Shull’s Mill Papers and the Shull’s Mill area itself (how cool is that, by the way!?). The mother-daughter team are related to the Shull family and were very interested in learning more about the family’s history in northwestern North Carolina’s High Country.

Robey Shull seated with family: http://omeka.library.appstate.edu/items/show/40338

I am used to playing the role of researcher most of time, so as a reference archivist intern, this past semester gave me a unique perspective on how one interacts with archival materials. On their first day in Special Collections, the mother-daughter team requested every single item in the Shull’s Mill Papers, and I remember seeing the excitement on their faces as I wheeled out the first part of the collection. Soon after, every inch of the worktables became covered by various archival boxes, and it was an honor to be present for the sheer joy and emotions the mother and daughter expressed as they worked through the boxes.

Verso of deed from N.C. Shull to Philip Shull, November 9, 1861, for 50 acres.

In terms of historical memory, the research team’s opportunity to explore the collection was exciting in and of itself, but the fact that they were able to do so just miles away from the spatial origins of the photographs and documents seemed to make their research all the more meaningful. Special Collections is located on the fourth floor of Belk Library, so the mother-daughter team could actually look off into the distance in the direction of Shull’s Mill. The reading room offers a spectacular view of the mountains, and on that day in the archives, I was witness to how the powerful relationship between the past and present are enhanced by place. The looks on the researchers’ faces as they studied the mountains from both inside the boxes and outside the window will always have a profound effect on me.

See AC.621: Shull’s Mill Papers, W.L. Eury Appalachian Collection, Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina, USA