A Mountain of Antiquity

A Mountain of Antiquity: A partnership between local universities brings Appalachian history online
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Grandfather Mountain, located in Linville, has watched over the region for thousands of years. This historic photo, along with many others, are now available digitally.

The Southern Appalachian Digital Collections partnership is a labor of love between Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library Special and Digital Collections and the University of North Carolina at Asheville Special Collections. The joint project provides unique access into the history of the Southern Appalachian region, which stretches from southwest Virginia towards northern Georgia and East Tennessee.

“This is an extension of what [the schools] are doing independently and more broadly representing all of the amazingly diverse things here in Western North Carolina,” says Gene Hyde, Head of Special Collections at UNCA.

Founded in 2019, following a Library Science and Technology Act grant, over 26,000 digitized records are available for seemingly-endless research or perusal by curious minds. Photos, oral histories, and letters are organized by collection, but can be filtered online by other criteria such as date, location, or format. By moving access to these historical documents online, the literature, craft, culture, and history of the region are all protected from the natural wear-and-tear that occurs from inspecting these items in person. Online, folks can search through moments of a collective past: wagons pulled by oxen, circling folk dancers, scaffolding supporting the Grove Park Inn, a line at Bele Chere, not to mention written documents such as historic pamphlets, brochures, and postcards.

A weaving instructional pamplet (above-right) from the Craft Revival period.

“We’re a great repository for a number of these digital items,” says Beth Thompson, WCU’s Department Head of Content Organization and Management, “...a research stop for not just us or our own users but our communities. It’s a lot easier to find something online, it’s a lot more visually pleasing. Local people are finding pictures of family members and of the area, and that’s one of our main purposes.”

Historical collections, however, aren’t just limited to the distant past. Viewers can indeed look at photos of seventeenth century craft pieces, but interviews documented for the LGBTQ Archive of Jackson County were recorded as recently as 2021. The twenty-plus collections cover nearly everything Southern Appalachia has seen in the last few hundred years: Cherokee history, the Civil War, forestry, and even the history of the institutions that run the archive.

Top right, the Grove Park Inn under construction. At bottom-right, a shot of a girl standing near an airplane that had made an emergency landing on a local farm, taken by notable photographer Gideon Thomas Laney. Not only are images available on the archive, but papers and documents as well, like a letter (left) from 1863 from a soldier to his sister.

“By and large, everything scanned and put on [the digital archive] reflects actual objects in the special collections,” said Gene Hyde, Head of Special Collections at UNCA. “These are real things we have, what you’re seeing is the tip of the iceberg in both of our wonderful collections.”

For more info on the Southern Appalachian Digital Collection visit southernappalachiandigitalcollections.org