Live Action Clue: How Professor Plum and Senator Scarlet Help the Wilson Library at UNC, Chapel Hill Solve the Mystery of Student Engagement

The Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill has presented Clue, a live action mystery event twice a year since the fall of 2012. Clue is designed to bring people into the Wilson Library and demystify both the building and the special collections and archives housed within.

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Emily Jack is the Community Engagement and Outreach Librarian at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and has been involved with the Clue team since its inception in 2012. In the following interview with COPA member Chris Burns, Jack describes the work the UNC team puts into this innovative and fun outreach activity and the enthusiastic reception it has received.

Burns: The Wilson Library has produced a live action Clue event every semester since the Fall of 2012, how did you come up with the idea?

Jack: Wilson Library is a beautiful building that looks classically academic. Because of its appearance, many undergraduate students have reported feeling intimidated by the library – or avoiding it altogether.

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Wilson Library, on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, houses the University Library’s special collections and Music Library.

In 2012, a (now retired) employee named Becky Garrett monitored the Fearrington Reading Room as a part-time job. Her professional background was in recreation therapy, a field that uses recreation to achieve therapeutic goals. In other words, her professional orientation was to solve problems with games, and she brought that lens to the problem of students feeling intimidated by the library. So, Becky suggested a live game of Clue for students, and we formed a committee to make it happen.

That first game in 2012 bore almost no resemblance to today’s game. It was more like an elaborate scavenger hunt. Now it’s an immersive narrative game, played on a custom web app, with a three-part mystery to solve, during which players interact with costumed characters and have up-close experiences with collection materials. But we couldn’t have the current version without building from the original version, sparked by Becky’s great idea.

Burns: Why Clue?

Jack: Students perceived Wilson Library as mysterious and old-fashioned, which is also the atmosphere of Clue. Using Clue as the narrative basis for the game gave it a familiar cognitive hook for students to attach themselves to. In essence, it served as a safe and easy bridge between two entities that share aesthetic similarities: one familiar and beloved (the board game Clue) and one intriguing but intimidating (Wilson Library).

It also made our marketing efforts much easier than if we had built a narrative game from scratch.

Burns: How does the event work and how does it make use of the collections and staff at the Wilson?

Jack: Our version of Clue aligns with the original in some ways – for example, its three-part solution, consisting of a who, a what, and a where. But, notably, ours is not a murder mystery. It’s a supernatural narrative with a ghost-related mystery.

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Clue players use a historic map to identify a mystery location in the library.

Using a mobile app, teams complete three activities, each aligning with one part of the solution.

Those activities include:

  • Interrogating six suspects, who are held for questioning around the library. To earn access to interrogate, players answer questions about exhibitions and other details in the library.
  • Using historic (reproduction) maps and wooden overlays made in our makerspace to find a code word, and then a hidden location, and finally a map of the library itself.
  • Interpreting communications from the ghost, and using logic (and student TV clips from the 1980s!) to determine which of a set of collection items is the correct one.

The game is fairly complex; this is just an overview. Collection materials, exhibitions, and staff interactions are woven throughout gameplay. Afterward, while they’re waiting for their scores, players watch a video purporting to tell the ghost’s origin story, but which also serves as a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the closed stacks.

One important aspect of the game is that it’s immersive – both narratively and spatially. Because the narrative is immersive, the players don’t feel like it’s a learning game or an elevated tour of the library. And because of its spatial immersion, they leave feeling completely confident in navigating the library.

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Players interrogate a suspect.

Burns: What’s the reception been like among students, staff, and faculty at UNC?

Jack: Reception has been overwhelmingly positive. Students tell us – and their peers – how much they love the game. Most importantly for our purposes, it has been universally successful in meeting its intended goal of lowering the intimidation barrier to visiting Wilson Library.

In post-game surveys, students report feeling surprised by how cool Wilson is and excited to return. They also say things like “I used to be afraid to go in the building. Now I feel way more comfortable walking around.”

We offer the program twice a year and it fills up with a long waitlist every time.

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Players answer questions about an exhibition to earn access to interrogate a suspect.

Burns: I imagine it takes a fair amount of work to pull this off, how have you managed to keep it going and keep it fresh each semester?

Jack: It is labor-intensive. But we have a great committee of staff who feel invested in the program and excited about working on a fun and creative project.

At this point, the planning process runs like a well-oiled machine. Hat tip to Alison Barnett and Katelyn Ander, the committee’s current co-chairs, who are remarkably organized. But we also make regular updates to the game’s structure and content, which keeps the planning interesting.

For game night, we recruit library staff from across the libraries to play all the roles. With a staff as large as ours, there are always new people who are eager to participate.

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Planning committee members and game night staff monitor check-in status on game night. Left to right, Luke Aeschleman, Rebecca McCall, Katelyn Ander, Dayna Durbin.

Burns: Is this an idea you would encourage other libraries and archives to try?

Jack: Using games is a great way to bring new people into libraries and archives. Clue is a fun structure to use, although I always encourage other institutions to make any game their own. Our design is very location-specific. For instance, our structure takes advantage of the fact that we have six public areas, and there are six suspects in Clue. In a smaller setting, you could do something just as successful; you would just have to take the scale into account.

I also encourage people to start small. Our game is successful because we started with something manageable and built it up over time.

ACRL will publish a book this year called Games and Gamification in Academic Libraries, edited by Eva Sclippa and Stephanie Crowe, which will include a chapter about Wilson’s Clue program for anyone curious to know more.

Burns: What other games do you think might work?

Jack: I love the idea of doing something with classic video games like Super Mario Brothers. It would also be fun to take other cultural phenomena like movies and turn them into games.

Burns: What’s next for the Clue team at the Wilson Library?

Jack: We’ve been talking for years about building in some sort of AR or VR component, but we haven’t yet hit on the right way to fit it into the narrative.

Fortunately, former staffer Luke Aeschleman designed the web app to be very flexible and user-friendly, and capable of accommodating just about anything.

Federal Funding Impact Story #9

Project: Collections and Facility Assessment and Planning

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“The Price We Paid: An Anthology of the Desegregation of Mississippi State College for Women” was created in 2016 as part of the Those Who Dared event series commemorating the 50th anniversary of desegregation. This project is the product of a significant collaboration between the MUW Archives and the History, Political Science, and Geography Department at MUW.

Granting Agency: Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)
Grant Program: Collections Assessment for Preservation Program
Institution: Mississippi University for Women
State: Mississippi
Congressional District: 1st Mississippi Congressional District
Grant Period: April 2013-March 2014
Award Amount: $7,190

Project Description
The Conservation Assessment Program funds a collections conservator and a facility conservator to visit a repository or 2-3 days, identify problem areas, and develop an action plan for the institution.

What was the need for the grant?
The archives had been dormant for several decades before hiring an archivist in 2012. It was in very poor shape, with extensive water and mold damage to the records, poor facility conditions (it was left in a vacant building with no climate or pest control), and little access for potential researchers. We were hoping to bring in some professionals to give us a sense of where to start and what to prioritize in bringing the archives back online.

What has been the primary impact of this project?
This project ultimately allowed us to preserve and provide access to our collections on the first publicly-funded women’s college in the United States. Subsequent research by students in our collections has revealed insights into subjects like racial integration at southern institutions, and early women’s education in the United States, which has led to public programming and discussion in the community.

The grant allowed us to bring two conservators to campus for several days. The priorities they developed with us served as a road map to saving the materials in the archives, which is now in a better facility, with better conditions, and is used by students every semester for class research projects.

Submission by: Derek Webb, Special Collections Librarian/University Archivist, Mississippi University for Women
Image credit to Mississippi University for Women.

Escape the Room… With Archives!

Solve the puzzles and celebrate your victory! Stay locked in and seethe (you were this close)!

If you’ve ever tried your luck at an escape room, you know the thrill of working to make sense of clues that will let you unlock the door and make your escape. But the one thing that might have made your escape experience even better? Archives! What if you could bring this special thrill to your archives’ patrons,  while introducing them to your collections and resources?  How would you go about it?

Laura Weakly

Laura Weakly, Metadata and Encoding Specialist at the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, combined archives and escape rooms by organizing an event for students in Fall 2017 using clues rooted in Nebraska history. In the following interview with COPA member Caryn Radick, Digital Archivist at Rutgers University Libraries, Weakly discusses how the event was organized and offers tips for would-be room designers.

CR: Why did you decide to do an escape room?

LW: The escape room was part of a campus wide welcome event for new and returning students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for Fall semester 2017. The room was located in C. Y. Thompson Library on UNL’s East Campus. The idea was to draw students into the library and familiarize them with library resources in a fun way. The escape room was the brainchild of librarians Jennifer Thoegersen and Erica DeFrain. In 2015, Jenny and her husband Rasmus Thoegersen, who was then director of libraries in Nebraska City, had created an escape room as a children’s event at the Morton-James Public Library.

CR: Who was involved and how did it work?

LW: Besides Erica and Jenny, the project team consisted of 10 employees of the UNL Libraries who created games and set up the room. The team split into groups to create a storyline, come up with the puzzles, develop graphics, and devise the rules for gameplay. Thirteen others tested the room once it was set up to ensure that the puzzles were set up properly, explained well, and solvable. After testing, some of the games were modified to make them easier and to give more detailed instructions before the students began playing. The game consisted of three puzzles which had to be solved in the allotted 20 minute time period. The answers to the puzzles led to a code that then needed to be entered into a “Time Machine” — a skinned Raspberry Pi computer.

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CR: How did you choose which stories you wanted to feature?

Newspaper column featuring cattle brands

LW: The storyline we created was a time machine that would take the players back in the history of the campus to events that did or could have occurred on the campus. Players would then need to use library resources strategically placed in the room to help them solve the puzzles and return to the present time. UNL’s East Campus is home to the International Quilt Study Center and so one puzzle focused on using print resources to solve a quilt-based riddle. Another puzzle centered on the Larsen Tractor Test Museum and photographs of historic tractors found in our Image and Multimedia Collections. The puzzle that my group created was focused on historic Nebraska newspapers digitized as part of the National Digital Newspaper Program and found on Chronicling America and Nebraska Newspapers. I remembered from when we were performing collation that one of the papers, the Valentine Democrat, featured pages and pages of cattle brands. Our puzzle then centered on a supposed  escape of cattle on East Campus, which is home to the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. We planted some “Fake News” about the escape in an edition of our campus newspaper The Daily Nebraskan. Players then had to read the story,  find the relevant brands in the Valentine Democrat, and then find the brands on tiny plastic toy cows. The toy cows had the brand on one side and a number on the other. The numbers were the answer to the puzzle.

Toy cows help solve the puzzle

CR: What was the response (how many students and what were their reactions)? Also, what was the fastest time the mystery was solved in?

LW: Ten teams of 3-6 students played the room. Six teams successfully escaped. The fastest time, recorded by the only team with just 3 players, escaped in the time of 11:33. Even the teams that didn’t escape said that is was really fun and that they enjoyed playing it.

CR:  What advice would you give to others thinking about setting up an escape room? Will you do another one?

LW: Having a good storyline and creating puzzles that go along with the story make a really great escape room. Testing and leaving enough time between groups to reset the room are also important. But mostly the room was about giving students an opportunity to go to the library just to have fun. We have already been talking about another escape room or rooms for the upcoming academic year, including possibly one in our new Learning Commons.

Sound and Vision: And We’re Live in 5…4…3…2…1

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This post was authored by COPA Chair Chris Burns, Manuscripts Curator and University Archivist at the University of Vermont.

This is the second in a series of posts about the use of video as an archival awareness tool. Feel free to contact the editors of this blog at archivesaware@archivists.org if you have a video or topic you would like to see covered, or if you would like to contribute to this series.

In 2016, we kicked off a new series designed to focus on the use of video in archival awareness and outreach efforts. The inaugural post, Sound and Vision: Using Video to Tell the Tales of Archives and Archivists, featured a handful of videos that had been produced by repositories and some general best practice tips. To be perfectly honest, there were not a lot of examples to choose from at that point in time. The use of video by archives was simply not widespread.

However, the use of video has grown significantly since then, driven in large part by livestreaming services, particularly Facebook Live. This type of video production has a lower barrier of entry, ties in easily to existing social media channels, and consequently is becoming an important outreach tool for archives and special collections. Facebook has made a concerted effort to promote and support Facebook Live, so while there are other tools for live streaming content to your audience, Facebook Live has become the major player, in no small part because of the large potential audience that already exists on Facebook.

What is Facebook Live?

Jennifer Koerber, writing in Library Journal, gives a good overview of Facebook Live and its use in libraries. At its most basic, Koerber notes, it is “video streamed over Facebook and archived there afterwards.” Facebook Live events are live videos as opposed to an edited video. They tend to be improvised, and are often filmed on devices as simple as a phone or tablet. The technical barriers for producing and distributing this type of content are quite low, but as with a more traditional edited video, quality can vary significantly. Paying attention to sound quality and lighting, as well as using a tripod and the best available camera and microphone setup can greatly improve the quality of your video and the experience for your audience. Koerber cites two helpful articles with tips for recording video on smartphones.

Facebook Live events are just that, live events, and need to be promoted to ensure you have an audience. Promotion should target your Facebook audience, but not exclusively. Promoting these events through other channels (blog, email, Instagram, etc.) not only draws people to the event, but also lets them know you have a Facebook account that they might want to follow. Because the events take place on a social media platform, they also have the potential to be interactive. People watching can share their enthusiasm by liking, commenting, and sharing the video. The live component allows you to interact with an online audience in interesting ways, such as soliciting questions from online viewers during the stream. Koerber notes how having a staff member monitor the comments during the livestream allows that individual to respond in real-time and add additional information like links to catalog records or digitized versions of the objects being discussed.

How are Special Collections and Archives using Facebook Live?

One way to use this medium is to provide an introduction to your holdings. The video below, from the National Agriculture Library, features an introduction to their seed catalogs (my favorite is the manuscript catalog from the 1830’s featured about 10 minutes in). The 37 minute video features staff members taking turns discussing items in their collection and has been viewed over 4,500 times in the 2 months since it was posted.

Another way institutions have been using Facebook Live to share their collections is by connecting them to another event, either at their institution or externally. In October 2016, the Dibner Library at the Smithsonian used a Facebook Live event featuring their anatomy books to tie into Halloween and Page Frights. The comments section shows how Dibner staff interacted with viewers throughout the video, taking full advantage of the live aspect of the event.

 

The Houghton Library at Harvard University held a Facebook Live event in March 2017 in celebration of their 75th anniversary. During the 48 minute live stream, two Houghton staff members gave a tour of the library, showed off items from the collection, and took questions from viewers. A key aspect of this livestream is that it took place on the main Harvard University account, which allowed the Houghton to reach a much larger potential audience. As a result, the video has been viewed over 67,000 times, and has had 1,900 reactions, 239 shares, and 415 comments. Not all archives will have access to an audience as large as the Harvard community, but it is a good reminder of how partnering with a larger social media account can really boost the signal of your outreach efforts.

The University of Chicago Special Collections Research Center has taken the approach of inviting researchers to talk about items from their collections. In the video below, Dr. Mindy Schwartz talks about an 1887 surgical kit that she uses to teach medical students about the history of medicine. This approach shows viewers not only the cool stuff in the archives, but also how a researcher or instructor uses them.

In a similar way, the US National Archives held a Facebook Live that featured Janet Macreery talking about how she used a range of archival sources to write her novel, A Little Wicked. Archives and special collections libraries have held events like this for many years, but livestreaming them allows institutions to reach beyond audiences who are willing and able to attend these events in person.

 

The Getty Research Institute held a Facebook Live event in March 2017 to talk about how they put together an online exhibition, The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra. The live stream shows some of the material used in the exhibit, but is also a fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at how they put this exhibit together.

An example of an institution doing exciting things with video, on Facebook Live and elsewhere, is the University of Iowa Special Collections. Led by Outreach and Engagement Librarian Colleen Theisen, their video work is aimed at engaging with as broad a community as possible. An excellent overview of their efforts can be found in this article by Scott Smith on the Big Ten Network website. You can view their videos, including their archived live streams, on their YouTube site.

In addition to the live streams they have conducted, such as their annual livestream on Shakespeare’s birthday, their YouTube channel features a few ongoing video series they have created that are both fun and informative. Their Staxpeditions series usually focuses on exploring Library of Congress call numbers, but my favorite installment is Staxpedititions 6: Exploring Mystery Boxes : Manuscripts Edition!

The work being done in the examples above is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what archives and special collections libraries are doing or could be doing with video. If you are doing interesting work in this area and want to be featured in this series, don’t hesitate to contact us at at archivesaware@archivists.org.

Federal Funding Impact Story #8

Project: The Cybernetics Thought Collective: A History of Science and Technology Portal Project

Granting Agency: National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)
Grant Program:  Humanities Collections and Reference Resources
Institutions: University of Illinois Archives, British Library, American Philosophical Society, and MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections
State: Illinois
Congressional District: 13th Illinois Congressional District
Grant Period: May 2017-2018
Award Amount: $49, 973
Institutional Match Amount: $34,976

Jobs Created:
– 1 PTE 20 hr/week position for 6 months
– 1 PTE for 20 hr/week position for 10 months.

Project Description
University of Illinois Archives, British Library, American Philosophical Society, and MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections have been awarded a grant from the NEH to develop a prototype web-portal and analysis-engine to provide access to archival material related to the development of the iconic, multi-disciplinary field of cybernetics. The grant is part of the NEH’s Humanities Collections and Reference Resources Foundations program.

“The Cybernetics Thought Collective: A History of Science and Technology Portal Project,” is a collaborative effort among four institutions that maintain archival records vital to the exploration of cybernetic history. In addition to supporting the development of a web-portal and analysis-engine, the award will enable the multi-institutional team to begin digitizing some of the archival records related to the pioneering work of U of I Electrical Engineering professors Heinz von Foerster and W. Ross Ashby, neurophysiologist Warren S. McCulloch, and mathematician Norbert Wiener.

What was the need for the grant?
The participating institutions sought federal grant funds in order to unite the personal archives of Heinz von Foerster, W. Ross Ashby, Warren S. McCulloch, and Norbert Wiener in a digital platform and thus create broader access for an international community of scholars studying the history and legacy of cybernetics.

Cybernetics, the science of communication and control systems, is generally regarded as one of the most influential scientific movements of the 20th century. At a time when postwar science had become highly compartmentalized, cybernetics epitomized the interdisciplinarity that has become emblematic of innovative research in the modern era. This project will provide greater access to the archival materials that document the rich and complex history of the “thought collective”—the scientific community of individuals exchanging thoughts and ideas about cybernetics.

What has been the primary impact of this project?
This project will draw greater visibility to the holdings of the four participating institutions. Cybernetics has influenced the development of a variety of disciplines, such as cognitive science, artificial intelligence, and computer science; being able to create broader access to archival materials that document this foundational multi-disciplinary movement will enable scholars to better study the evolution of these disciplines. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in particular, the project has spurred local interest and related initiatives to investigate the ways in which the Midwest, and central Illinois in particular, have contributed to the modern technological era.

Nationally and internationally, the project enables the four institutions to form a partnership that unites related archival material that is geographically dispersed. We hope creating online access to these digitized materials will make them more accessible to scholars who aren’t able to travel to the repositories where these materials are held.

NEH funding for this project will enable the four institutions to digitize and create access to approximately 20 cubic feet of archival material initially. The project team will use the results from the prototype analysis-engine and prototype portal development to inform future work and hopefully a second phase of the project that includes other repositories with related archival material.

Submission by: Bethany Anderson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Federal Funding Impact Story #6

Project: Michiana Memory Digitizing Local African American, Latinx, and LGBTQ Materials in St. Joseph County, Indiana

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Odie Mae Johnson, at graduation, 1931. Courtesy of Indiana University South Bend Archives.

Granting Agency: Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)
Grant Program: LSTA Grants to States
State Library Administrator: Indiana State Library
Institutions: St. Joseph County Public LibraryIndiana University South Bend ArchivesIU South Bend Civil Rights Heritage Center
State: Indiana
Congressional District: 2nd Indiana Congressional District
Grant Period: 2014-2017
Award Amount: $28,880
Institutional Match Amount: $6,000

Jobs Created:
3 FTE for 36 months
9 PTE 20 hr/wk positions for 36 months.

Project Description
In January 2014, the St. Joseph County Public Library reached out to the IU South Bend Civil Rights Heritage Center and IU South Bend Archives to combine their collections related to African American and civil rights history. The combined archives launched within the Michiana Memory history website in February 2015. Since then, thousands of guests have accessed the materials. The renewal of the LSTA Indiana Memory Digitization Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services of the Indiana State Library in 2015 led to the inclusion of more materials than ever, including oral histories about African American and Latino history, and the first collection of LGBTQ history in the Michiana community. Guests can access the collections now by visiting http://michianamemory.sjcpl.org.

What was the need for the grant?
We saw the need to make digital content available to the public from St. Joseph County, Indiana. And specifically we wanted to make voices speak out from the primary sources from marginalized portions of our community: African Americans, Latinos, and LGBTQ communities. The Archives at Indiana University South Bend partnered with the St. Joseph County Public Library and the Civil Rights Heritage Center to make this happen.

What has been the primary impact of this project?
We have been monitoring use through Google Analytics – and seeing it in use in the thousands every month. The Archivist at IU South Bend has also been seeing many students’ bibliographies citing the site for primary source research. Further, many reference requests are spurred by people’s use of the site. The requests come in on the national – and sometimes international – level. Consistently – month by month – using Google Analytics – the Civil Rights and African American History section of Michiana Memory, funded by LSTA and IMLS, is in the 2,000 to 3,000 user area – the highest user area of all the sections on the local history site.

Submission by: Alison Stankrauff, Archivist and Associate Librarian, Indiana University South Bend
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Undergraduate Archival Internships: Opportunities for Professional Development -AND- Student Outreach

 

Gene Hyde headshotUntitled-1This post was authored by guest contributor Gene Hyde, Head of Special Collections, and Ashley McGhee, archival intern at University of North Carolina Asheville

The University of North Carolina Asheville is the designated public liberal arts campus in the UNC system, and as such we serve an overwhelmingly undergraduate population. In Special Collections we work closely with the UNCA History Department to offer a credit-bearing internship experience for undergraduates. An internship is the equivalent of a 3 credit hours History course, and interns are vetted by the History faculty in collaboration with Special Collections.

Our interns work 150 hours over a semester with a set schedule. Internships start with readings in archival theory, followed by hands-on arranging and describing of a collection, creating finding aids, and creating a display and/or blog post about their work, all accompanied by plenty of one-on-one mentoring. We have interns most semesters, and sometimes we’ve had two or three at time. Interns seem to enjoy the experience, and often express interest in careers in archives, librarianship, or public history. Indeed, part of the mentoring process often entails discussing these career options.

Last year Special Collections received an internal UNCA grant to purchase a significant local history collection and hire a student intern to process it, and we hired Ashley McGhee. Ashley had previously worked in Special Collections as an intern and had proven herself as gifted and hard-working, plus she is from Western North Carolina and has a strong interest in Appalachian history. As part of her internship responsibilities she was required to process the collection, join me in meeting with the donor and discussing the collection, and write a process paper describing her internship. Her process paper is below.

Gene Hyde, Head of Special Collections, UNC Asheville

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Ashley McGhee in the UNCA Special Collections Reading Room

The John Brown Land Speculation Collection Papers
A Process Paper by Ashley McGhee

          When I came to UNC Asheville to pursue a second degree in History I had no idea how the Library’s Special Collections would have an impact on my life.  I spent more time in the library than I did in class, and quickly made the acquaintance of both the Head of Special Collections, Gene Hyde, and the Archives Assistant, Colin Reeve.  After I worked a summer internship in Special Collections, Gene realized how at home I was among books and manuscripts and asked if I would be interested in working on an additional project.

A private donor who is an amateur historian of Western North Carolina (WNC) and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park had offered Special Collections papers from the Brown family, which were related to the Speculation Lands Collection already housed in UNCA’s Special Collections.  The Speculation Lands Collection documents land acquisition and ownership in Western North Carolina during the late 1790s -early 1800’s, when land speculators sought land for investments instead of settlement like most frontier residents, and it provides an intimate, and often unique, look at land business dealings during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Brown family papers document land speculation efforts by John Brown and three generations of his relatives.  After securing the details regarding the collection, Gene and I traveled to the donor’s home to meet with him and his wife to discuss some of the finer points regarding the collection.  As noted, this private donor is a historian of Western North Carolina, and every nook and cranny of his personal library contained books, maps, and pictures, all housed in a warm wooden room full of soft lighting and squishy chairs, a bookworm’s dream come true.

The donor was willing to share what he had already learned about the Brown collection as well as provide extensive notes of his research. This was the beginning of background research for the collection, but it only scratched the surface.  Since the collection was related to the larger Speculation Lands Collection, the obvious research choice was to start with that collection and then work backwards.  After perusing it, and then books such as Sadie Smathers Patton’s Buncombe to Mecklenburg: Speculation Lands, along with the previously published “John Brown’s Journal of Travel in Western North Carolina in 1795”, I realized I was going to have to go back even further in my research.  Eventually, I ended up having to go all the way to the mid-1600’s with the first England Land Grants that were chartered for North Carolina, and then the original Eight Lords Proprietors.

When Special Collections received the papers, they were in a big box containing several manila folders with all the documents mixed together. The donor purchased the collection at an estate sale, and there was no evidence that any original order was intact by the time it was obtained by Special Collections. After examining the collection and conferring with Gene, we agreed that the logical way to organize the collection was to separate the documents by each speculator. Most all of the documents were from speculators within the Brown Family, but each man worked in different areas and in different time periods, so I wanted their documents categorized unto each of them so their work could tell their individual stories.

Before even getting to that though, I had to relax the documents, which involved placing the documents overnight into the bottom of a dry plastic container and then sitting that in a larger, deeper container which held a couple of inches of water in the bottom, thus reintroducing moisture and making the items more pliable and less fragile when handled. The materials were then laid flat between acid-free sheets of paper and weighted down to flatten out. Finally, to wrap up the project, I described the folders of material, wrote a detailed description and history of the collection, and created a finding aid.

Once the collection is made public on the UNC Asheville Special Collections website, it will be available for all to use.  Gene and I plan on stopping in to see our friend who donated the collection again, and enjoy his hospitality and talk Western North Carolina history and archives.