This article appeared in the Volume 3, Issue 2 Fall 2021 issue of the Appalachian Curator. Click here to view a PDF of the full issue.
Appalshop Archive, Whitesburg, KY
By Leo Shannon
The Appalshop Archive preserves art and media from central Appalachia with a focus on the work created by Appalshop, Inc., a non-profit documentary organization located in the eastern Kentucky community of Whitesburg. The organization was launched in 1969 by the Community Film Workshop Council, a War on Poverty jobs training program to help young people in economically distressed areas find work in the growing national media industry. Instead of leaving eastern Kentucky for industry jobs, the Whitesburg trainees chose to stay and form an
independent production company that would document the voices of their region. As the organization grew, the filmmakers became acutely aware of the power of sustained, local documentary work to counter mainstream stereotypes. An influx of young documentarians, musicians, theater makers, and activists transformed the workshop into the multidisciplinary non-profit organization Appalshop, Inc., which currently houses a documentary film division, the June Appal Recordings record label, community radio station WMMT-FM, the Roadside Theater ensemble, the youth filmmaking program Appalachian Media Institute and a Community Development division.
The economic, political, social, and cultural currents of the region are reflected in primary source audiovisual and photographic materials, paper records, 3-D objects, and ephemera dating from the early 20th century to the present. Film and magnetic media items are stored in a climate-controlled vault that is maintained at 60° F / 40% RH. In addition to masters of Appalshop’s 100+ documentaries and 90+ June Appal Recordings releases, our media collection includes thousands of hours of production footage, event documentation, and field audio recordings as well as photography and supporting materials. Appalshop’s holdings relate to a wide range of community institutions such as the Old Regular Baptist Church and the United Mine Workers of America, and address issues like stripmining, labor organizing, in-and-out migration, and Appalachian representation in American popular culture. The majority of Appalshop’s feature documentaries that were shot on film have been photochemically preserved, a process in which original film and audio masters are copied to fresh 16mm film stock. Over the years, donor support has led to preservation-quality digitization of approximately 800 hours of analog moving image and audio content and several collections of photographic images and paper ephemera.
Digitization of time-based analog materials has enabled the archive’s staff to add enhanced metadata to Dublin Core and PBCore (audiovisual) records and to expand collection records in our content management system, CollectiveAccess. CollectiveAccess was chosen for its customizable web-based cataloging and publishing software and robust capacity to create relationships between records. The latter is an important feature for Appalshop’s holdings where multi-layered connections between projects, artists and communities reflect the organization’s deep and sustained work in central Appalachia as well as with national and international partners.
Beyond our core collection of assets created through the activities of Appalshop, the archive stewards a growing number of donated collections of regional significance. These include: a 1938 reel documenting the Civilian Conservation Corps in Pine Mountain State Park; the Mountain Community Television collection of 70’s-era cable access programs broadcast in the coal community of Wise County, VA; and several pieces of hand carved furniture made by legendary Letcher County woodworker Chester Cornett.
One of our most compelling collections contains thousands of photographic negatives taken by William R. “Pictureman” Mullins, a self-taught professional photographer from Dickenson County, VA. Mullins worked in Eastern Kentucky, Southwestern Virginia, and Baltimore from the 1930s through 50s and took portrait photographs of individuals, couples, and families, as well as religious happenings and funeral ceremonies. The people in his photos, given the opportunity to represent themselves on camera, often took care to get dressed up for the photographs in their best suits and dresses. Because of this, Pictureman’s images stand in contrast to most early
to mid-twentieth century photography of Appalachia, which frequently took the form of outsiders looking in at an impoverished, “other” culture. Our staff
is in the process of performing preservation scans of these roughly 3600 photo negatives which will be cataloged and made available to researchers and the public.
The Appalshop Archive is committed to public engagement with the collections and to partnerships with other community historical organizations. Our most recent project is a collaboration with the Southeast Kentucky African American Museum and Cultural Center in Hazard, KY and the Appalachian African American Cultural Center in Pennington Gap, VA. The project will include recording oral histories with Black faith community members and pastors, documentation and restoration of Black cemeteries in eastern Kentucky, and facilitation of family history preservation events where residents will be invited to bring and discuss photographs and artifacts for digitization.
In addition to its scholarly and research value, a community archive allows people to rediscover and interact with their own histories, generating new life for archival materials. In the coming months and years, the archive staff seeks to improve researcher access to our holdings while deepening our connections with local people whose voices are held in the collections. This effort is related to a simultaneous effort (by the archive, and by Appalshop as a whole) to document events, traditions, and family histories in present day Letcher County, continuing the work that Appalshop filmmakers set out to do in 1969. We are working towards an archival practice that helps to create something new by remembering and exploring the past.
Leo Shannon is a staff member at the Appalshop Archive