Special Collections Committee News: Thinking about Special Collections: The Understory Grounding Appalachian History

By Stewart Plein, Special Collections Committee Chair, Appalachian Studies Association

This article appeared in the Volume 1, Issue 3 Winter 2020 issue of the Appalachian CuratorClick here to view a PDF of the full issue.


While reading the newspaper on the first day of this New Year, my attention was drawn to an Associated Press article[i] about the impending opening of a collection of letters between the poet T.S. Eliot and his friend, Emily Hale.  Sealed for fifty years at the request of Hale as a stipulation of her donation, the correspondence is now available for the first time. The opening of this collection provides students, scholars, and researchers with an intimate look into a relationship that, for decades, has been tantalizingly oblique and speculative, providing not only new insights into the life of a well-known poet, but also adding a new branch in the understory of Eliot scholarship.

I know what you’re thinking.  No, T.S. Eliot, while born in Missouri, wasn’t from Appalachia.  Neither was Hale.  The correspondence isn’t housed at an Appalachian institution, it’s at Princeton University.  Regardless, this event illustrates the purpose of special collections and the processes used to respect privacy, while also providing access in the public interest.

Repositories across Appalachia do exactly the same things.  Archivists and librarians at repositories and institutions throughout the area collect, preserve and provide access to materials in a variety of formats that document and record the history and culture of our region.  These materials are rooted in our collections, providing a dense understory to the vast and varied forest that is Appalachian history and scholarship.

The Appalachian Consortium and the new committee

Beginning with its founding in 1971, the precursor to the newly revived ASA Special Collections Committee, special collections committees in the Appalachian Consortium connected special collections, librarians, and archivists in the region.  The consortium, through meetings, publications and conference sessions, worked to preserve and share our culture and the materials that record it.  After thirty-four years in this role, the consortium disbanded in 2004.  Nevertheless, Appalachian archives continued to gather, preserve and share our history and heritage without a coordinating body dedicated to bringing archivists, librarians and researchers together to discuss and promote our collections.

Fortunately, Gene Hyde, Head of Special Collections and University Archivist at Ramsey Library at UNC Asheville, changed all that.  Working closely with ASA, Gene was able to interest the association in a new committee to resume the work of the Appalachian Consortium’s special collections committees.  This new committee, called simply the Special Collections Committee, became an offshoot of the former consortium and part of ASA’s governing structure.  Plans for the new committee were announced in a February 9 post, “A New Group for Archivists of this Region,”[ii]  in the Virginia Tech Special Collections and University Archives blog.

Goals for the special collections committee are three-fold: to promote, to recognize, and to develop, while at the same time continuing to build, enhance and sustain the community of Appalachian special collections.  Building on Virginia Tech’s blog post, goals for the committee include:

  • Updating information about Appalachian repositories and institutions across the region. Much has changed and institutions have grown since the initial assessments were made by the Appalachian Consortium.
  • Assessing the needs of repositories–both large and small.
  • Facilitating conversations and creating opportunities for professional development activities that could be held at future ASA conferences. These professional development opportunities could include a variety of events such as workshops, exhibits, and targeted sessions, with the possibility of developing a certification program specifically focused on special collections in Appalachia.
  • Developing funding sources for projects and encouraging and recognizing new scholarly work focusing on primary source materials in the region.

As the new chair of the special collections committee, I would also like to look beyond the physicality of archives to include recognition of important books and genres that have characterized and described the region.  The historical reach of books that have defined Appalachia is broad and deep.  They include everything from scholarly works on early explorers, pioneers, captivity tales, local color literature, foodways, music and musicians, Affrilachians, folklore, poetry, health, healing and remedies, genealogy, geography, and so much more.  All of these subjects and areas are part and parcel of the archives of Appalachia.

In closing

From these early beginnings steps have been taken to formalize the committee and promote it to others.  An initial session at the ASA conference at UNC Asheville in March 2019, sought to develop interest and encourage participation in the new committee.  The session drew interested individuals who supported the committee concept and those involved in its evolution made plans to move forward.

A committee report posted in the Fall 2019 Appalink newsletter,[iii] announced a new chair following the departure of Rachel Vagts, who initially held the chair’s position, and a call for participation.  Committee goals and plans were also described.

Looking forward, as we gather together to celebrate our region at the upcoming Appalachian Studies Association 43rd Annual Conference, “Appalachian Understories,” March 12-15, 2020, in Lexington, at the University of Kentucky, I hope you will considering joining me for a “getting off the ground” special collections committee session to discuss these plans as we continue to move ahead. The session is entitled “Roots of the Region: The Special Collections Committee Roundtable,” which will meet from 8:30-9:45 pm Saturday morning at the conference (room to announced in the final conference schedule).  I hope to see you there!


[i] Associated Press:  “T.S. Eliot letters to muse to be unveiled after 60 years.” By Christina Paciolla.  January 1, 2020 GMT.

[ii] The Virginia Tech Special Collections and University Archives blog:  February 9, 2019.  “A New Group for Archivists of this Region.”

[iii] Appalink: Fall 2019, October 9 issue, Volume 43, Number 1.  “Special Collections Committee” report.  Appalachian Studies Association newsletter.

In addition to her duties as Chair of the Special Collections Committee in ASA, Stewart Plein is also Curator, Rare Books & Printed Resources and Managing Director, West Virginia National Digital Newspaper Project at West Virginia University Libraries


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