(Originally posted to Virtual Blue Ridge’s Blue Ridge Parkway Blog, May 27, 2008)
I am writing this post while riding along in my family’s minivan, my computer plugged into the cigarette lighter via a DC/AC converter my husband and I bought when I was doing some early Parkway research.
We bought this little device in 1994 because at that time, when I was doing research for my book, the Blue Ridge Parkway’s main collection of historical documents was housed in an abandoned dormitory at Asheville’s VA hospital at Oteen. Archivists everywhere, please stop reading now: you will shudder at the conditions under which these valuable and irreplaceable documents were at that time kept.
The collection (which had been saved from complete oblivion by former Parkway staff member Art Allen, previously the curator for the entire NPS) lived in small third-floor room the size of a university lecture hall. Shelves of hundreds of neatly numbered and labeled gray “Hollinger” (acid-free) archival boxes filled the room. A professional archivist had organized the collection a year or two before and had compiled a spiral-bound description of the materials that provided easy guidance for what would be found there. So far, so good.
Unfortunately, “abandoned building” meant that there was no electricity, no air conditioning or climate control, and no staff on site. The collection was vulnerable to fire, bugs, vandalism, and theft. It also was a challenge for researchers to use.
I did my first Parkway research sitting at a student desk by the window, and later, with the converter in hand, by carrying boxes down to the front porch, where we were in reach of the car’s cigarette lighter.
Phil Noblitt, the Parkway staff person who was at that time in charge of the archives, kindly opened the building for me each day, but had to trust me and my husband to work alone there. Contrast this with the National Archives in Washington, DC – and most other archives these days – where careful registration, security checks, and surveillance cameras are the norm.
Over the years, I have followed the Parkway archives around the mountains. For a while, they left Asheville and went over to the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University, where I was delighted to find a research room with rocking chairs looking out at a gorgeous mountain view.
Finally, they came back to Asheville, where I visited them two weeks ago at their locked, climate controlled (and freezing cold!) home, which is under direct control of the Parkway.
Meanwhile, I learned that park curator Jackie Holt has been steadily adding new items and consolidating collections. She has brought to the archives historic maps and drawings and issues of the early Parkway publication, the Blue Ridge Parkway News, all of which formerly lived in different offices, and she has been scanning and digitizing other materials. Since I finished my book in 2006, some new early construction reports and superintendent’s annual reports have turned up. The finding aid, which the archivists use to help researchers navigate the collection, is now computerized.
As park archives go, the collection is a very strong one – well organized, full of treasures and valuable early (1930s and 40s) material (including a large photograph collection), and relatively complete. It is well worth the time of any researcher embarking on a Parkway-related project.