The North Carolina Room
In an upstairs room of the main branch of the New Hanover County Public Library, local historians celebrated the 100th anniversary of the state's oldest archive collection in 2010. Well, maybe not with hats and noisemakers, but many good things in this room are more suitable to the prevailing quiet policy of the library.
This is the domain of Beverly Tetterton, a fairly quiet person herself and author of numerous books, ably assisted by Joseph Sheppard. The progress of history coupled with the relentless onward march of technology has reinvented this room many times over, drawing local color from old yellow newspaper clippings to microfiche to CD-ROM to scanners and various on-line presences.
So you could do it all if you felt so inclined, and you could be in this room for days or weeks. Not everything is on microfiche but the staff will be happy to trot out voluminous files of old newspapers and county records stashed away in the back room.
"We have this incredible collection," Tetterton said. "We probably have 25,000 photographs, and we have 5,000 scanned in and on-line. There are manuscripts and we are also putting Civil War letters on-line."
She said the library has collected public documents from the city and the county, including the personal history of every county commissioner that ever served. "We have the world's best collection of family histories in Southeastern North Carolina, tens of thousands of families."
A lot of things can be found on the library's website, but one of the North Carolina Room's biggest draws is the Ancestry software, "a gigantic database that you can search for marriage, birth and death certificates. But it will not allow what's called remote access for Footnote and Heritage." The library pays $3,500 a year for the program, and you have to go to the North Carolina Room to access it.
"People want to know the history of their house, or they want their family history, and also we have the scholarly types." And those are the ones who still struggle with the microfiche and the boxes of old records, with no search mechanism available to narrow the data.
"I suspect some day they'll have the newspapers scanned and have some kind of word search program." Meanwhile, legions of volunteers have put clippings in subject files and refined your search efforts merely by clipping and classifying items in a general way.
The Rare Books Collection has a small area of its own, with first editions safely stored in glass cases, in a sort of look-but-don't-touch display. Prominent North Carolina authors are represented here: Fred Chappell, Inglis Fletcher, Reynolds Price, Robert Ruark. If you want to actually read any of these, go get a circulating copy out of the stacks.
Putting in long hours in this public place looking for the unfindable can yield completely unexpected results. "The nice thing is everybody in this room can probably help you. People meet each other. A student from Vanderbilt was in here doing her thesis on Minnie Evans at Airlie Gardens, and she just happened to be in here asking us for information. And a guy whose family owned Airlie was in here doing personal research and he said he could tell her all about Miss Minnie because he grew up with her."
This is what the academics call a primary source.