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Bob Anthony’s charge is to preserve the ‘conscience of the state’

Bob Anthony

Bob Anthony began patrolling the stacks of North Carolina Collection in January 1979 when he was pursuing his master’s degree in library science here. After receiving his degree in 1982, he kept working at the collection as a librarian I for another three years.

There was something about the idea of the collection and its vastness that fascinated him, and after a one-year hiatus, it drew him back. He returned as the collection development librarian in December 1986, a position he held until his appointment as curator in 1994.

Even after 30 years, Anthony still peruses the stacks in wide-eyed wonder and takes delight in stumbling upon something old about North Carolina that is new to him – and he still pinches himself to be so lucky. He grew up in a rural stretch of eastern North Carolina where – for a boy who loved to read – seeing a bookmobile rolling down the road every couple of weeks was cause for pure joy.

Today, every morning that Anthony goes to work he is reminded that he is in a special place, and holds a sacred trust, as he walks down the hall and passes the framed portraits of the three other people who have served as curator.

Humble beginnings
After Louis Round Wilson became University Librarian in 1901, he forged the collection into existence when he organized all North Carolina materials into a special department, Anthony said.

But the collection’s roots run even deeper, to 1844, when David Lowry Swain established the Historical Society of the University of North Carolina with the stated purpose of collecting “copies of every book, pamphlet and newspaper in this state since the introduction of the printing press among us.”

Swain served as governor of North Carolina from 1832 to 1835 and president of UNC from 1835 to 1867. But it was in 1831, while traveling the state as a judge on the North Carolina Supreme Court, that Swain concluded the state was in “an intellectual stupor” about itself and conceived the idea of putting together a collection of materials.

That first year, Swain acquired 32 publications and 11 manuscripts. But when he died in 1868, his collection and the society’s future remained in question, and it was not until two years later that a group of men, joined by Cornelia Phillips Spencer, sought to obtain the society’s resources and give them to the University.

Part of Swain’s original collection, however, was never recovered and the mission of collecting North Carolina materials did not resume until the N.C. Historical Society was founded in 1875, with strong backing from University President Kemp Plummer Battle.

By 1917, the collection of “North Caroliniana” was big enough to be organized as a separate department in the University’s Carnegie Library, which is now Hill Hall. A year later, Louis Round Wilson, who served as University Librarian from 1901 to 1932, gave an impassioned speech to convince the Board of Trustees to spend $20,000 to acquire the Stephen Beauregard Weeks Collection, which at the time was the largest accumulation of “North Caroliniana” in private hands.

With that purchase, the North Carolina Collection doubled in size.

Enduring legacies
If Swain was the spiritual father of the collection, its most enduring fixture was Mary Lindsay Thornton, who became the collection’s first curator in 1917. She would serve for 41 years, scouring the state for new materials and then returning to catalogue them.

Her successor, William Powell, history professor emeritus, credits Thornton for being ahead of her time in collecting items for, about and by black North Carolinians.

In 1919, the last year of his life, the 89-year-old Battle climbed the steps to the collection to tell Thornton he was leaving his books and materials to the collection.

Perhaps the person most responsible for making sure the collection did not remain a minor University department was John Sprunt Hill, an 1889 graduate of Carolina who began endowing the North Carolina Collection in 1905 when he was elected to the Board of Trustees.

It was his funds that paid Thornton’s salary as curator in 1917. In 1935, Hill gave the University the Carolina Inn, with the stipulation that earnings from it be used to support the collection.

In 1952, when the collection moved to more accessible quarters within the newly expanded Wilson Library, Hill selected and paid for the Chippendale reproduction furnishings in the North Carolina Collection Reading Room that remain in use today.

Also installed that year and made part of the collection were the Sir Walter Raleigh Rooms, with paneling and furnishings from 16th-century England, and the Early Carolina Rooms, with paneling and furnishings from 18th-century Pasquotank County.

Two new rooms later were added to create the gallery. One was a replica of the octagonal antebellum Hayes Library at Edenton, which houses more than 1,800 books from the library of James Catheart Johnston and his forebears. The other features the story of Hill and his many contributions to the University.

‘The conscience of the state’
After Powell left in 1973 to join the University’s history department, H.G. Jones, the state archivist of North Carolina from 1956 to 1974, became curator and served for 19 years.

Through each change of leadership, continuity of purpose remained the core of the collection’s strength, Anthony said. That purpose, he said, has been to remain true to Swain’s 19th-century charge to create a collection that could serve as the “conscience of the state.”

It includes the Durant family Bible, published in 1599, the book that has been in North Carolina longer than any other, and a book of poetry by George Moses Horton, a slave who once sold his poems (for 25 cents) to lovesick college students.

The largest body of manuscripts is the Thomas Wolfe Collection, which includes the scolding note that Margaret Roberts, Wolfe’s third-grade teacher, wrote to him: “Your work since Christmas has not been satisfactory. …”

The Wolfe manuscripts are an exception, since nearly all other manuscripts held by the University Libraries, including North Carolina-related ones, are housed in the Southern Historical Collection, which was established in 1930.

What began in 1844 with 32 publications is now the repository for more than 282,000 books and pamphlets, 6,000 maps, and 1.3 millions photographs. Anthony said the collection is believed to be the largest of its kind in the country.

He said that approximately 10 percent of the collection covers University history, including archival copies of all graduate theses and dissertations and undergraduate honors essays dating back to 1894.

He is equally proud of the fact that “lowbrow” materials have found refuge in the collection as well. The guiding principle is to find and preserve everything ever written about North Carolina, or by a North Carolinian – not to pass judgment on its worth.

Perhaps the best example of that is The Buccaneer magazine, a short-lived and controversial parody published during the Great Depression.

“They did one issue with jokes and drawings that were considered a little too risqué,” Anthony said. “The magazine had to produce a substitute issue, and the library was forced to turn in the old issue to be destroyed.”

Not long after Anthony became curator, an elderly man came to his office and identified himself as someone who had worked for The Buccaneer. The man told Anthony he had been forced to accompany a University official to the county landfill where the magazines were to be buried – and forgotten. But when the official wasn’t looking, the man pushed some of the magazines off to the side to save.

He told Anthony, “I will give you one of those issues if you agree never to tell my name.”

The man has long since died, but Anthony said he will take the man’s identity to his own grave. A deal is a deal, and a man’s word, especially in Anthony’s line of work, is always his most prized possession.

And one of Anthony’s most prized acquisitions for the collection remains that purloined copy of The Buccaneer, which will forever grace its shelves.

To learn more about the collection, refer to www.lib.unc.edu/ncc.

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