This article appeared in the Volume 3, Issue 3 Winter 2022 issue of the Appalachian Curator. Click here to view a PDF of the full issue.
By Gene Hyde
Earlier this year, UNC Asheville’s Special Collections received the largest private donation in their history when Bill and Alice Hart donated their extensive private library to UNC Asheville. Containing more than 1200 monographs and 26 linear feet of ephemera and other materials, the William A. Hart, Jr. and Alice Huff Hart Western North Carolina Regional Library, known as the Bill and Alice Hart Collection, is the crown jewel of UNC Asheville’s Special Collections.
Bill and Alice Hart curated and developed their collection over 55 years, systematically building a private collection of books, ephemera, manuscripts, recordings, and other materials that document the rich history and culture of Western North Carolina. Both are Western North Carolina natives with deep roots in the region. Alice Hart traces her family back to the original settlers of Jackson County, and her Madison County ancestors helped found Mars Hill College. Bill Hart’s Buncombe County roots go back to the late eighteenth century.
Early in their marriage, the Harts made the deliberate decision to learn as much about their home as possible, acquiring books and other materials about Western North Carolina. They used these resources for both personal knowledge and for professional reasons. As a teacher and school administrator, Alice often brought materials into the classroom, and Bill used the collection to research and publish articles on photographer George Masa and the Great Smokies. The collection has particular strengths in the Great Smoky Mountains and in hiking and camping, reflecting Bill’s lifelong passion for the outdoors. He has section-hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, and chronicled his extensive hiking experience on trails in the Smokies in his book, 3000 Miles in the Great Smokies.
They built a library in their home for the collection that totaled over 100 linear feet of shelf space, and they were generous with these materials, sharing their library with scholars. For years, while the collection was housed in the Hart’s home, it was an invaluable resource that was used by scholars such as Dan Pierce, author of Great Smokies: From Natural Habitat To National Park, Janet McCue, co-author of Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography, and Rose Houk, author of Pictures For A Park: How Photographers Saved The Great Smoky Mountains.
UNC Asheville archivists Ashley Whittle and Gene Hyde became friends with the Harts and enjoyed many visits to their house, sitting in their library, examining the books, and talking about the collection and how it was curated and developed. Often BIll would discuss a book or piece of ephemera, his deep knowledge making these conversations a series of master classes about the provenance, history, and context of an item.
During the summer of 2021 Bill and Alice Hart asked if UNC Asheville would be willing to accept the Bill and Alice Hart Collection for Special Collections. We immediately said yes and began planning the logistics of moving the collection to UNC Asheville.
The Harts had broad interests in WNC, and their collection was arranged categorically on their shelves in the following groups:
Group 1: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Group 2: Early WNC Travel and History
Group 3: WNC Institutions
Group 4: Appalachian Trail
Group 5: Crafts, Humor, Foxfire
Group 6: Folklore and Music
Group 7: Fiction with Regional Settings
Group 8: Cherokee and Indigenous History and Archeology
Group 9: County Histories and Community Information
Group 10: Natural History
Group 11: Architecture, Photography, Forestry, Natural Resources, Blue Ridge Parkway, Mount Mitchell
Group 12: Asheville and the Civil War
We resolved to keep this organization intact when we shelved the monographs in our reading room. For the monographs, we rearranged the entire book collection in the reading room, deaccessioning some items and moving other items to the main stacks, all the while using our collection development policy of focusing on Western North Carolina as a guide. This opened up seven shelf sections along one wall, which was enough room to fit the more than 1200 monographs donated by the Harts.
In addition to the monographs, the shelves in the Hart’s collection also contained dozens of pamphlet boxes of various materials. We decided to process these materials as a manuscript collection. This consists of 26 linear feet of pamphlets, flyers, correspondence, Great Smoky Mountains Hiking Club Handbooks, the Great Smoky Mountains Colloquy, Fontana North Shore Historical Association documents, early tourism guides and publications, publications from regional churches, schools, and businesses, Appalachian Trail Data Books, forestry materials and soil surveys, newspaper and journal articles, regional county guides, maps, catalogs and bibliographies used to develop the collection, and much more. In addition, there are over 100 record albums of old time, bluegrass, and regional music.
In order to capture Bill’s narrative gift in describing books in the Collection, we made a series of videos in which Bill Hart selects important works from each group in the collection, annotating and providing context to major works and authors.
In addition to the private library at the Hart’s house, we were also impressed by Alice Hart’s watercolors of regional landscapes, many influenced by the photography of George Masa. Alice donated four watercolors that are displayed in the reading room along with the Hart Collection, and also provided an artist’s statement and description of each watercolor.
Noting the significance and size of the Bill and Alice Hart Collection, the UNC Asheville foundation recognized it as a “major gift” to the University, and in September Chancellor Nancy Cable hosted a reception announcing the Hart’s generous donation, an event that also included tours of the Hart Collection.
The Bill and Alice Hart Collection is open for research. A list of the cataloged books is available here, a link to Bill’s descriptive videos is available here, and a link to the finding aid is available here.