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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

West’s path of discovery led to Southern Historical Collection

There have been times in his life when Tim West thought he might be “the tiniest bit” like Walker Percy – or, if not the famous author himself, perhaps Binx Billing, the existentially-challenged protagonist in Percy’s award-winning first novel, “The Moviegoer.” Both were seekers who struggled in their early years to find their ultimate purpose and place in the world.

West’s path actually crossed with Percy’s several years after he discovered Percy’s writings and had begun working as a processing assistant at the Southern Historical Collection (SHC) in Wilson Library in 1979.

“It was 1982 or 1983, and for whatever reason, I got the chance to drive down to his home in Covington, La., to pick up the materials Percy had decided to donate to his alma mater before his death,” West said. (Percy died of cancer in 1990, just 18 days before his 74th birthday.)  

West, then in his early 30s, remembers being both nervous and excited, but Percy quickly put him at ease with a warm welcome – and a stiff glass of Southern bourbon, poured as Percy showed West the pages from his original handwritten manuscript of “The Moviegoer” spread across the kitchen table.

That assignment, and the opportunity to get to know Percy, remain among the highest honors and greatest memories of his life, said West, who retired as director of the collection on Dec. 28.

Dueling identities

Even as a child, West had an insatiable, restless curiosity and was instilled with a sense of duty to others that he would later struggle to fulfill.

That curiosity took him to Duke University where he graduated with a degree in English in 1969. The passion for service led him to join the Peace Corps, where he worked with children in Malaysia before enrolling at Carolina for a master’s degree so he could teach.

He got a job teaching 7th grade, then at age 25 abandoned it when he became convinced that whatever qualities a successful middle-school teacher needed would remain forever beyond his reach.

He returned to Carolina for another degree, which he earned from the School of Social Work in 1976 and used to become a psychiatric social worker at the Wake County Mental Health Center.

He wanted to find something he was good at and, at the same time, do some good for others. But his stint as a social worker also proved to be brief.

Just as with teaching, his heart may have been in the right place, but he realized he was not.

He bounced around for a while at odd jobs before friends from graduate school told him of an opening as a processing assistant at the SHC.

It was here he began to feel he had finally found an intellectual home, doing what he should be doing – almost.

“It was the best fit I had found so far,” West said.

He processed materials the SHC already had in its possession, but he wanted a crack at seeing what he could do if given the opportunity to collect new materials. So in 1994, he sought that opportunity by leaving the SHC for the Special Collections Library at Duke.

He returned to the SHC in 2003 as director.

Building on a foundation

The thing that West wants people to understand about his 24 years of service at the collection – the last nine as director – is that whatever he was able to accomplish was made possible largely by the work of the people who came before. And while he may not be indispensable, the Southern Historical Collection is. At least for anyone interested in discovering anything old or new about the American South.

C. Vann Woodward, a preeminent historian at Yale University who focused on race relations and the American South, did his graduate work in history and sociology at Carolina and completed his Ph.D. in history here in 1937. His dissertation was the manuscript he finished on the life of Thomas E. Watson. (Watson, a politician and newspaper editor from Georgia, was the nominee for vice president with William Jennings Bryan on the Populist ticket in 1896.)

Vann Woodward came to Carolina, West said, because it was the only place at the time he could study Watson. In the years after Watson’s death in 1922, all of his papers ended up in what would become the Southern Historical Collection when it was officially established on Jan. 14, 1930.

No doubt, that was because of the efforts of the collection’s founder, J.G. deRoulhac Hamilton, a history professor who by the 1920s began driving tirelessly across the South gathering materials for what he described as “a great library of Southern human records.”

The collection’s inaugural year coincided with the opening of Wilson Library, where it has always been housed. Hamilton served as the collection’s director for the next 21 years until his retirement in 1951. At that time, the collection held roughly 2.14 million documents. As of 2012, the collection stands at about 17 million documents.

A treasure of unconnected dots

SHC materials document almost all aspects of the history of the South. The collection is so large and varied that each year thousands of researchers from around the world use it to pursue topics ranging from slavery to the Civil War to climate change, West said. Included are very long runs of intimate family correspondence, sets of 50-volume diaries, more than 100,000 photographs, 4,000 oral history interviews, general store account books, scrapbooks, office files, videotapes and other items.

The Sam J. Ervin Papers represent the largest single collection, with about 536,000 items. Other notable collections include those of journalist Charles Kuralt; Harvard psychiatrist and cultural critic Robert Coles; and historian and novelist Shelby Foote.

“We have the best documentation of Southern plantation economy and culture in the 19th century, so any historian who is interested in the 19th-century South has to come here,” West said.

There has always been a vast storehouse of materials on African-American history, but it is only recently that it has begun to receive the scholarly attention it deserves, West said.

For her 1988 book “Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (Gender and American Culture),” Elizabeth Fox-Genovese drew upon the diaries, letters, memoirs and oral histories she unearthed at the SHC to reveal how class and race determined women’s experiences and shaped their identities.

In 2010, the New York Times ran a story about how Sally Wolff-King, a scholar of Southern literature at Emory University, read through the 1,800-page diary of a Mississippi plantation owner from the mid-1800s to uncover the connection between enslaved people noted there and characters in William Faulkner’s 1942 novel, “Go Down Moses.”

That diary, written by plantation owner Francis Terry Leak, was donated to the Southern Historical Collection in 1946.

Never forget ‘the why’

One of West’s most satisfying experiences as director happened last year when shortly before author Doris Betts’ death, the University – through the efforts of her former colleagues in the English department, George Lensing and Joe Flora – obtained her papers from Boston University. To read West’s account of that acquisition, see www.lib.unc.edu/fol/current_windows.pdf.

As for his advice to colleagues who will carry on the collection’s work, it is to give some thought every so often to why they do the work.

For West, the most satisfying thing has always been seeing researchers use the collection’s materials to make discoveries and draw conclusions that excite them and maybe even make a difference in the world.

West may have retired, but he is determined that his own personal journey of discovery will continue unabated.

He has never been a person who has had a clear idea of what he will do next, but as he approaches his 66th birthday, that old uncertainty suits him just fine.

“We can all see aging and dying out there in the future,” he said, “but I am at this point where I still have my wits about me and some energy left to ask myself, ‘Where do I go now?’ and I am excited about that.”