Interview with Trevor McKenzie, Director of the Center for Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University

This article appeared in the Volume 3, Issue 1 Spring/Summer 2021 issue of the Appalachian Curator. Click here to view a PDF of the full issue.

Gene Hyde: Thanks for talking with me Trevor. I’d like to discuss your current position and your older position and how being the archivist influences your current job. But, first, could you tell me about your current position?

Trevor McKenzie: I’m the Director for the Center for Appalachian Studies, which is focused on providing programming and research support for people interested in Appalachian Studies here at ASU. It’s been restructured from a previous position that also oversaw the academics, or the degree granting portion of Appalachian Studies, and so this role is sort of a new position. In a way it’s an old position, of course, that goes back all the way to Pat Beaver the first director, but then it’s also a new position in that mainly this is a more of a community outreach focused position and a programming and events development position with research support for the program in Appalachian Studies, which we have here the master’s degree program.

Photo of Trevor McKenzie
Trevor McKenzie, Appalachian archivist and Director of the Center for Appalachian Studies, Appalachian State University. (Photo by Megan Sheppard Photography)

GH: And for people who may not be familiar with the Center, can you give a brief history of the Center and the academic programs associated with it?

TM: The Center for Appalachian Studies was founded in 1978 by Dr. Cratis Williams, who was the father of Appalachian Studies and was, by extension, the organizer of the Center for Appalachian Studies here. Cratis hand-picked a Duke Univeristy doctoral student he was working with, Dr Pat Beaver, to be the first director.  It’s one of the oldest centers for this study around, and it’s really a thrill to be part of that long legacy extending back to Pat Beaver and Cratis Williams.  And Williams also did the legwork to found the W. L. Eury Appalachian Collection, which I was fortunate to work with for almost nine years. To be part of that sort of powerhouse history is a real honor.

GH: Can you tell me about how you got started working in the archives and how that experience helped you as an Appalachian Studies scholar?

TM: I graduated with a Master’s degree in Appalachian Studies, and at the time I was graduating what remained of what had been the Appalachian Cultural Museum, which had been located on campus here, was in the process of being dispersed to locations across mostly the southeast. Which was really sad, as I had come to Appalachian State with an interest in both the Eury Collection and the Cultural Museum.

I had been a public history student in my undergrad years at Appalachian and had made connections with Dr Neva Specht, who was overseeing this dispersal process that she been tasked with. She hired me to work on this project. Instead of “American Pickers” we were sort of like “American Givers.”  We had a white van and we’d drive all over the South. People would be like “are you sure you want to give this away?” and we’d say “yeah, sorry, we know it will be in good hands with you.” We worked with the archives transferring records from the museum, and I got my feet with the archives that way. About the time that that position ended, there was a position open for an NHRPC grant that would fund processing of a decade-long backlog of collections, if not more,  in the W. L. Eury Appalachian Collection, and so I jumped at the chance to be able to work with those materials. I applied for the job and was hired in the fall of 2012.

GH: I know that that was a pretty massive effort. What was it like working with all those collections? What did you do? Did you physically process collections, create finding aids, or what? I know you wrote the “Backlog Blog” documenting what you did.

TM: I was in charge of all those things. I came up with the “Backlog Blog” because we were supposed to have a blog to keep up with the grant’s progress , so I dreamed up that name. As we went through the collections the blog kept those at the NHPRC who were monitoring the grant up to date, but also let the wider Appalachian community know what we were up to.

My hands were on the materials, I was really the point person and processor for the grant. When it came time to put these finding aids online for the processed materials that was part of my job. The entire scope of the project fell under what I was hired to do. There was some help from Anita Elliot, who was the other processor, and she did some of the smaller collections, but I processed most of the massive backlog. We created 456 new finding aids and processed a total of 1917 linear feet, which was 707 linear feet more than the total outlined in the initial grant proposal, so we outdid ourselves on processing.

It was everyday hands-on processing for two years, but I wouldn’t trade that time for the world just to be in that collection and to see the wealth some of these materials.  Some even dated back to Cratis Williams himself and some of his mentors like Dr. W. Amos Abrams.  Some of the things that were reprocessed were, to my interest, foundational ballad collections that were part of this grant as well. I. G. Greer’s collection, Dr. Abrams’s collection that informed so much of the seven-volume Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore. Every day was getting to play with this treasure trove, this forgotten cave of unprocessed materials. And knowing some of the personalities behind our regional studies and some of the history of this region was thrilling.

GH: What happened after the grant ended?

TM:  In 2014 I was fortunate that Fred Hay, Librarian of the Appalachian Collection, and Norma Riddle, who was University Archivist at the time, took a proposal to then Dean of the Libraries Joyce Ogborn to hire me. Basically, Anita Elliott, who had worked on some of the smaller collections on the grant, was set to retire. She had been with the university since she had graduated from high school in Ashe County sometime back in the late 1960s. She had  one more year left and they were going to be short of a processing person, so they came up with a proposal to allow me to overlap with her for a year, with the promise that I would be the person to carry on processing in that position. So it was a great deal that they brokered there to keep me on, and I can’t thank Fred, Norma, and Joyce enough let the proposal go through. It was agreed that I would stay on in that position and be a processor focused on Appalachian collection materials.

GH: And you kept that job up until 2021 when you took this job, correct?

TM: Yes, and I really feel like I got to know that collection.  I think the only other person who probably knew the collection in that deep of a way was Dean Williams. I always thought of Dean as the brain of the Appalachian collection. I relied on him due to his knowledge the institutional history of the collection, as well as his wealth of knowledge about the content. I think Fred Hay would agree with me.  Dean was someone that I leaned on and someone that I admired is a friend and an Appalachian scholar. Dean retired in 2019 right prior to the pandemic. After Dean left we were lucky to hire Ross Cooper who had worked in the Watauga regional library and had similar skills in genealogy and a knowledge of local history

All this is to say that the time I was able to spend deep in the W.L. Eury Collection was invaluable for someone interested in history of the region. It was really a dream job.

GH: How do you think that knowledge of archival material and processes in Appalachia helps inform what you’re doing now.

TM: To brag on the collection: this is one of Dr Fred Hay’s lines that he usually uses “it’s the oldest and largest collection of materials on the Appalachian region in the world.”  To be able to work with a collection with that scope exposed me to a lot of facets of understanding this region that streamline perfectly into this job as Director. There are things in the collection on environmental issues in the region, the Appalachian lands survey about land ownership in Appalachia, and all the things that the Center’s been involved with in its history.

There are Helen Lewis’s papers which were so much a part of our connection with Wales. The exchange between the Welsh coal fields and Appalachian being sort of a safe haven to filter miners between the coalfields in eastern Kentucky and Southwestern Virginia coalfields and having them collaborate with miners in the coalfields of South Wales,  and having Appalachia sort of being that safe space between those two places to facilitate this dialogue between two areas that were, at that time in the 70s when that exchange was set up, when the coalfields in both of those regions were really embattled. So to be able to facilitate that exchange and that dialogue between these two similar regions of the world, and to see the Center’s involvement in that thanks to Pat Beaver, underlined for me this deep connection that we have both within the region and abroad, a legacy that is meant to be carried on with the connections that this Center should continue to make and continue to foster was we have in our past.

That’s just one very small example, and I use that because I was fortunate in 2016 to travel to Wales and represent Appalachians archives. At one point I was sitting at John Gaventa’s supper table, and it seemed to me that all these major collections I’ve processed were all talking to each other in front of me because the people who had created them were all sitting together. It was sort of an awkward dinner over wine, and it’s sort of surreal. Helen Lewis is talking to John Gaventa and it’s like “folder number three is coming up to talk with folder 18 from box 70,” and they’re having this conversation.  And Richard Greatrex is at the head of the table, and he’s Helen Lewis’ cinematographer for this, the person shooting the footage of these Welch coal strikes and these in eastern Kentucky. And you have these three collections talking! Pat Beaver was there, so it’s like all of this institutional memory was just swimming across the table. I don’t know if it was a mildly psychedelic moment where the folders were coming out to greet each other, and the conversation was like living finding aids!

It really underlined for me the importance of the work we do as archivists because these are real people, and it helped me confirm that I had done an okay job in structuring these collections and getting the personalities of these people and how they organize their thoughts. It was like having the metadata hinged on each comment and having these small snippets of the abstract reconfirmed, or that I got the historical note right. Okay, cool!  And to make it even more meta, John Gaventa turns around and says there some things I might need to restrict that were not restricted!

The talk was about how dangerous that work is as well, as it was dangerous to be asking “who owns Appalachia?” It was dangerous to record coal strikes on each side of the Atlantic, I think, at one point they even had to smuggle some of that footage out in the hubcaps of tires.

So I realized what had been given by these people to create these collections and how precious these materials were — something that is smuggled away from basically a war zone in the hubcap of a car, because somebody would confiscate and destroy it. And now it’s living here in our archives.

GH: Tell me about teaching the bibliography course that is required for the MA in Appalachian Studies at ASU. All of us who went through the program took it. Fred Hay taught it for years, and Mike Wise taught it when I was there. What’s your approach to it and how do the archives fit in?

TM: That course is meant to throw Appalachian master’s students into the deep end of what the concept of this region has been, and that leans heavily on archival materials, as well as materials in the closed and open stacks of the Appalachian collection, all of which I consider rare books. The way I’ve structured the course draws inspiration from Dr Hays’s approach to the course, and involves acquainting students with how the region has been conceptualized, how this area Appalachia has been thought of as an entity.  And in order to do that, we have to read a lot of very old and very problematic texts.

We consider surveys of the Appalachian region. Some of them are real surveys, some of them are more literary works, more travel writing. I had the students start with reading William Byrd’s The History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina. His conceptualization is “once you hit the mountains the people are different,” or “the mountains are different once you hit the North Carolina line.” There are the beginnings of this “othering” of Appalachia, which makes it convenient to scapegoat the region, a point that comes out from reading all these surveys. We progress from William Byrd up through James Wickes Taylor’s Alleghania, and Washington Irving’s treatise that America should be called Appalachia or Allegheny because it’s a more native name, and then we kind of get into the problems of with taking native names that’s not exactly representative of the people who are there. We continue the history up to Weller’s Yesterday’s People and then several centuries of history of laying out these surveys and the idea, “where is this place?” and “who are these people?” That’s the heavy front end of the course that requires reading two books a week. Sometimes it’s more entertaining, like reading Horace Kephart, and other times it’s very dry, like the 1935 USDA Agricultural Survey which has a map of the average age of mules in the region, which I find personally interesting but may not be of interest to everyone.

The purpose of the course, at least on that front end, is to throw them in the deep end and have them be disoriented, “Whoa! I thought Appalachia was here” and “I thought it was this, but somebody this far back says it’s this.” So it’s kind of being thrown into the waters in the first part of the class, and then there’s this life preserver angle in the second part of the course where we invite Appalachian scholars to speak, people that are involved in Appalachian Studies. Then I’m also expanding that to bring in people actively involved in regional organizations and nonprofits, places like Watauga Riverkeeper. That’s the more comfortable part of the course where there’s less reading but there are people involved in the region. I have them read an article or several articles or a part of the book or watch a film from whoever is visiting and ask them to have questions based on that.

It really is a class that I think a lot of people find dry and I think a lot of people would back away from teaching, but for my background it’s one of the most exciting courses that I can teach because it engages students deeply with sort of key texts on the Appalachian region and with the oldest and largest Appalachian collection, which is right there right around the corner.

GH: Thanks, Trevor. That’s all my questions. Is anything you want to add?

TM: I would like to say that the weight of this position, being Director of the Center, is not lost on me.  I’ve been fortunate to have people reach out and support me just in this early stage –  Pat Beaver and her husband Bob White, and I mean the list is endless. Dr. Hay has been supportive. I feel like there are communities in the Appalachian region and then  there’s the Appalachian Studies community and to have felt so supported in such a short time has meant a lot to me.  This is very much a different type of position than working in the archives, and in order to pull this off I can’t do it alone. It’s everyone who’s come before me who’s been willing to share so much about what went into making this Center a meaningful part of the Appalachian region and of Appalachian Studies and of this school, and so I just can’t say enough of how much it has meant to me to have people reach out  and be supportive.



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