Archives of Appalachia celebrates 40 years, introduces new director

Becky Campbell • Nov 4, 2018 at 4:00 AM

Step into the Archives of Appalachia on the fourth floor of Sherrod Library at East Tennessee State University and you won’t find any musty smells of old books and newspaper clippings one might conjure up in their head.

The smells are there, though, locked away in secure climate controlled rooms to protect thousands of books, documents and recordings that tell the story of the Appalachia area — which is a sight bigger than some might think — and it’s a milestone year for the archives at ETSU, which officially was founded 40 years ago.

According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, which was established by an act of Congress in 1965, ARC is composed of the governors of the 13 Appalachian states. Yep, 13. The entire region cuts a swath through the Eastern U.S. and includes:

• Southern New York,
• A majority of Pennsylvania,
• Northwest Maryland,
• The Southeast border of Ohio,
• West Virginia — the only state that is entirely in Appalachia,
• Southeast Kentucky,
• Southwest Virginia,
• East Tennessee — actually about half of the state,
• Western North Carolina, 
• The upper tip of South Carolina — which is also the area included in the Blue Ridge Mountains,
• North Georgia
• North Alabama,
• Northeast Mississippi

In the Archives of Appalachia, there is a lot of history from the entire 13-state region that dates back hundreds of years. The center itself, however, just turned 40, and there’s a plan to celebrate during the 2018-2019 academic year, according to Dr. Ron Roach, chair and professor of the Department of Appalachian Studies and director of the Center for Appalachian Studies and Services.

“It is a milestone in a couple of ways,” Roach said recently. “It’s the 40th anniversary of the founding of the archives, which is one part of the Centers for Appalachian Studies and Services. There are 26 across the state. The center started as an institute for the studies of Appalachia and it included the archives which started in 1978, but it became a Center of Excellence in 1984. Definitely the archives is celebrating its 40th year this year.”

The Center for Appalachian Students and Services is part of the College of Arts and Sciences. The center houses five distinct divisions:

• Archives of Appalachia
• Reece Museum
• Appalachian Teaching Project
• Governor’s School for the Scientific Exploration of Tennessee Heritage
• Now & Then: The Appalachian Magazine

“The Archives of Appalachia is one of the premiere collections of material related to this region anywhere in the world,” Roach said.  The Department of Appalachian Studies is a full curriculum that consists of:

• A Master of Arts and Graduate Certificate in Appalachian Studies,
• The Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies, 
• Appalachian Studies Minor
• Appalachian, Scottish and Irish Studies
• Environmental Studies Minor

“We’re the only university in the world to have a full department dedicated to Appalachian Studies, so we offer the world’s first degree in Bluegrass and the master’s degree in Appalachian Studies,” Roach said. “There’s a great synergy between what we do in the Center and what we do in the department. One of the key linkages between the two is right here in the archives because the students and faculty from these academic programs use this, as well as many other programs across the campus.

As the old school card catalog of inventory went by the wayside for advanced technology, the archives had room to dedicate a space to a classroom, where Laura Smith, education and outreach archivist, teaches classes to students on how to go about using the center.

“We’ve had classes for students in history, art, geo sciences, literature, language, and of course Appalachian Studies and others,” Smith said. “Whether it’s an introduction class or general education class to intensive graduate level class for introduction to research methods ...or documenting community traditions in Appalachian Studies.”


“From my perspective as director of the Center for Appalachian Studies and Services, I look it from a two-prong approach,” Roach said. “One is preservation. There are great stories in this region. It’s a unique region and we want to preserve those stories. That’s one part of what the archives does. But the other piece of it is access. We want people using and learning these stories and passing them along. That’s what has been the real game changer in the last 15 years or so ... this ability to allow digital access.”

ETSU isn’t the only holder of historical documents moving to digitize its content.

“Archives everywhere, I think, are playing catch up,” Roach said. “We have all these materials we’ve been gathering for 40 years, but how do you organize them, how do you convert them to digital format and then how do you give people access.”

The archives contain a massive number of records, including:

• Nearly 9,000 linear feet or archival material,
• 84,000 sound recordings,
• 7,868 moving images,
• 13,797 publications, and
• More than 12 terabytes of audio and nearly nine terabytes of video have been digitized.

Material from the archives have made their way around the world and onto the big screen. Images have been featured in several movies, including the 2014 Hollywood film Big Stone Gap and a 2018 documentary on the history of Breaks Interstate Park, which was featured on Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs cable show. Smith said film maker Ken Burns’ production company recently conducted research in the archives for an upcoming documentary on the history of country music.

The archives contains one of the largest collections of traditional music, including several recordings that exist nowhere else in the world by blues artist Lead Belly. The most recent donation to the archives included the entire collection of the Delaware Bluegrass Festival recordings from the 1970s.

The archives also has a new director to continue leading the department into providing more accessibility.

Dr. Jeremy Smith, who has a decade of work in archives at Duke University and most recently at Overland College in Ohio.

“This job in archives was appealing to me for several reasons,” Dr. Smith said. “One of the biggest was to the degree the Archives of Appalachia are focused on this region. I think that region matters, and anytime a university can leverage its location to create a unique educational opportunity,” it benefits the region. “That is what ETSU has done.

“This institution really has its focus on supporting this region, and I think this collection is part of that. It’s a key part of the identity of this institution. It’s a great privilege to be able to move into this position and build upon the success of the last 40 years,” he said.

“The future is to provide as broad of an access as we can. That will certainly continue to include physical access here in the archives ... there are certain things that can only be known by engaging with the physical object. At the same time we want to provide access that our patrons are expecting.”

That includes streaming access for audio and visual material as well as pushing more digital access for researchers.

For more information about the Archives, visit www.ETSU.edu and type “Archives of Appalachia” in the search box. The search will open the archive site where visitors can search a database of collections.

To welcome the new director to the area, the archives will host an Open House on Nov. 13, 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. on the fourth floor of the Sherrod Library. The event is open to the public.

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