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Unlocking the past: Archives of Appalachia hold a wide range of historical information

Amanda Marsh • Apr 25, 2013 at 8:51 AM

Sifting through old Washington County court records, or reviewing old recipes and remedies, can help researchers find the key information they need about Appalachian culture.

These bits of information, including local railroad records, music and folk tale recordings, plus a complete East Tennessee State University archive, can all be found in the Sherrod Library on campus.

Now in its 35th year of operation, the Archives of Appalachia continues to add to its collections through donations made by the public. The archives include more than 800 collections of diaries, scrapbooks and documents, in addition to more than 250,000 photographs and nearly 85,000 recordings.

"We are a very well supported archive," said Laura Smith, education and outreach archivist. "The archives offer an inviting atmosphere. A lot of times archives are underfunded and we are fortunate to have support from the community and a media collection that draws a lot of people in."

The Archives of Appalachia are mostly used by students, genealogical researchers and individuals from other universities. Access isn’t limited, however. The collections are open to the public, so that anyone can find the missing piece or begin a quest to find answers.

Archives of Appalachia employees, like Laura Smith, are there to aid researchers and point them in the right direction.

"That’s the best part of the job," Smith said. "It’s really rewarding to help people connect the dots."

Exploring a subject such as genealogy or land ownership can be overwhelming, but Smith is there to help break it down.

Every piece in the archive stays in-house, on the fourth floor of the Sherrod Library. Of course, copies can be made of most documents and media stations are available for audio selections. Before a researcher even walks into the library, it’s best to know where the material is located. That’s why archive staffers devote a large amount of time and energy to putting the collections into a searchable database online.

By clicking on "search collections," researchers can use key words, such as a last name or genre, to find the exact folder and file where the document is stored. Then, an Archives of Appalachia employee can use that listing to locate the actual document and provide the researcher with the requested information.

It’s that easy.

Laura Smith also shares interesting findings on the "Archives of Appalachia" Facebook page and the Archives of Appalachia blog. Links to both, as well as the database, can be found on the Archives of Appalachia web page at www.etsu.edu/cass/archives.

The archives will continue to grow, as long as the public continues to donate items, Smith said.

"They want to know that their items will be cared for," Smith said. "Typically, we can take better care of the items than the family because we can preserve it in the special environment it needs."

Acceptable donations to the Archives of Appalachia include anything from a collection of local baseball photos to an old family scrapbook. The donation doesn’t have to be old. Smith says current items will one day have value, too.

"We’re looking for anything relevant to Appalachia or the university," she said.

The Archives of Appalachia is located in the Sherrod Library, at the corner of Lake Street and Seehorn Drive. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., except for holidays observed by the university. For more information, go online or call 423-439-4338.

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