Articles,  Special Collections Committee Minutes

ASA Special Collections Committee 2020 Year in Review and 2021 Conference Update

This article appeared in the Volume 2, Issue 3 Winter 2021 issue of the Appalachian Curator.

By Stewart Plein, Chair, ASA Special Collections Committee

Looking back on 2020 I can certainly say that this was an eventful year filled with unexpected challenges. The year began with an ending.  Racheal Vagts,’ the first chair of the Special Collections committee, departed for a new position in Colorado.  Following her departure, I was asked to fill the position.  Next up was the emergence of the COVID 19 virus.  Due to the virus and the subsequent cancellation of the 2020 conference, the first meeting of the Special Collections Committee, which was to be held during the conference, was delayed.

“Appalachian Understories,” the theme for the 2020 conference, aimed to grow hope and resilience within the region.  With this theme in mind, the special collections committee proposed a session called “Roots of the Region.”  In this session the committee planned to discuss special collections as our regional roots, the archival understory composed of the papers, oral histories, books, films, photography, recordings, and other materials that make up the history of Appalachia.  The assembled accumulation of our collections, spread throughout the mountains, provide the groundwork for our collective histories, by gathering, sharing, and preserving the multi layered voices of the diverse region that is Appalachia.  We hoped to share all of this, as well as news of the committee and its goals with conference attendees.

Though delayed, the meeting was held via Zoom on April 17. The full committee membership, representing special collections across our region, hail from repositories and institutions in North Carolina, Tennessee, Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.  Committee members in attendance were:  Gene Hyde, Jeff Dey, Jeremy Smith, Scott Skies, Cassie Patterson, Marc Brodsky, Liz Skene Harper, Jinny Turman and myself, Stewart Plein, Chair. As a committee we discussed five topics or goals for the committee to address.  Among the topics discussed during the first meeting included: 1.  the impact of COVID 19 as it affects institutional electronic reference and the inability to access physical collections, 2. providing an outlet for the committee to perform region wide reference under the suggested tag line “Ask an Appalachian Archivist,” 3. Issues faculty face across the region during the pandemic, 4. readership and visit statistics for the Appalachian Curator, and 5. development of a web presence.

Over the course of the year the Special Collections committee has addressed each of these goals and added new ones.  Since the April meeting, the voice of the committee, the Appalachian Curator newsletter, added the “Ask an Archivist” tab on the web page.  This is an important addition.  Similar to the “Ask a Librarian” feature at many colleges and universities, the “Ask an Appalachian Archivist” tab allows anyone to inquire about Appalachian collections, their repositories, and contact information.  It’s an outreach service for the entire region.

In addition, five issues of the newsletter are now available on the web:  Many thanks to Gene Hyde as editor, and the entire editorial board, for making the newsletter a success.  The impact of COVID as it affects special collections repositories, and the issues faculty have faced have been addressed in the Curator as well.   Readership and visit statistics have also been shared during meetings.  Gene reported at our most recent meeting that statistics report 6,200 visitors for all pages with 16,000 page visits.  These numbers point directly to the success of the Appalachian Curator and its connected outreach in the region.

We welcomed two new members this year.  Julie Fox-Horton, at the ETSU Archival Studies Program, and Tim Binkley, Head of Special Collections and Archives at Berea College.  Their experience and expertise will be of great value to the committee and the region as we continue to address challenges faced by special collections in Appalachia and celebrate their significance.

In September, committee members Gene Hyde and Liz Harper presented a webinar, “Raising Archival Awareness in a Regional Studies Organization: The Appalachian Studies Case.” The talk was originally scheduled for the Society of North Carolina Archivists’ Conference last March.  With that conference cancelled, Gene and Liz gave the presentation as part of UNC Asheville’s Library Brown Bag Talk series. The presentation described archivist led efforts to create a Special Collections Committee within ASA, as well as the newsletter, the Appalachian Curator. The talk also reviewed the creation of the Special Collections Committee as a group focused on historical as well as current initiatives and programs, with an aim to provide a forum for news and information about Appalachian archives.

The committee met three times in 2020: April, September, and October, with plans to meet on a quarterly basis.  The October meeting was added in order to discuss the committee’s plans for the upcoming ASA 2021 Virtual Conference. Together, as a committee, we discussed a variety of topics with Liz Harper’s monuments concept emerging as the best among them.  With input from Tim Binkley we added a restorative justice concept to the initial topic.  In November we submitted a conference panel proposal, “Reclaiming the Edifice: Restorative Justice and the Archives.”

As I write this review, the special collections committee panel presentation has come to pass. It was held Thursday, March 11, at 10:30.  The presentation explored the role of archival repositories in the work of restorative justice, examining the decisions regarding the removal, placement of historical context, and the creation and renaming of monuments and buildings as entities of public memory.  The panel addressed the work of researchers, students, and community organizers using archives to inform their advocacy as part of the movement for restorative justice.  Our thanks go to the 86 attendees who joined us for the panel presentation.

Four panelists discussed critical topics with a focus on restorative justice.  Panelists and presentations were:

  • Juan Pacheco, B.S., Virginia Tech. “Confronting Legacy at Virginia Tech: The Struggle over Lee Hall”
  • Sharyn Mitchell, Research Services Specialist, Special Collections, Berea College. “Reclaiming Our Histories:  Invisible No More”
  • Gene Hyde, Patrick Bahls. “UNCA Housing Authority Records/Urban Renewal Reparations Project”

The first year of the ASA Special Collections committee has produced some significant achievements: from the creation of the Appalachian Curator newsletter, to the implementation of the “Ask an Appalachian Archivist” link, to the outreach of programs designed to introduce others to the importance of primary resources and special collections throughout our region.

As we enter our second year, the most recent committee meeting, held April 12, discussed upcoming plans for the 2022 conference to be held in person at West Virginia University, the formation of a Reopening subcommittee to look into the reopening plans for special collections repositories across the region and report those findings in a future Appalachian Curator article. Also of importance to our discussion was an initial query into the search for members of diverse communities to add their voice to the committee, as well as the inclusion of student(s) representation.

Through these outlets, and others yet to be determined or under development, the Special Collections committee documents the broad knowledge of this region; including the archives and oral histories that recall the voices, the stories and communities recounting the lives of the people who live here.

If you’d to be a part of the Special Collections committee, please contact Stewart Plein at

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