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West Virginia Collection Holds Keys to the State’s History

Posted by btoren@wvu-ad.wvu.edu.
September 15th, 2000

A look inside the West Virginia and Regional History Collection at WVU.
West Virginia University Alumni Magazine v.23:no.3 (Fall 2000)

by John Cuthbert

The author is curator of the West Virginia and Regional History Collection of the WVU Libraries.

It has often been said that history holds the keys to unlocking the future. If there is even a kernel of truth to this statement, then surely the West Virginia and Regional History Collection of the WVU Libraries is an asset that will prove to be invaluable to the citizens of West Virginia as we struggle to meet the new challenges of the next millennium. As the primary keeper of the historical record of the Mountain State, the West Virginia Collection has a formidable number of keys at its disposal.

Totaling some 40,000 volumes, the collection’s printed resources document virtually all aspects of West Virginia history and culture—its political and industrial development, its natural environment, its rich folk heritage, and much more. Included among its four million manuscripts are the papers of the men and women who forged the state amidst the turmoil of the Civil War, as well as those of the early captains of industry and labor who established the economic and political systems that have continued to shape the state’s destiny to the present.

The collection’s audiovisual resources, including sound recordings, motion picture footage, and more than 100,000 photographs, provide an opportunity to literally look at and listen to West Virginia’s past: the camp of the West Virginia Brigade near Keyser during the Civil War, a rousing speech by United Mine Workers of America leader John L. Lewis, a square-dancing exhibition at the 1953 Glenville Folk Festival.

Each year these and other unique resources, available only at the West Virginia Collection, provide scholars and laymen, policymakers and citizens, journalists, genealogists, and many others with the information they need to understand the past in their personal or professional quests to explain and enrich the present and prepare for the future.

The history of WVU’s commitment to fulfilling a function that is more often performed by a state historical society dates back to the late 1920s, when Professor Charles Ambler, chair of the WVU History Department, began to seek out and acquire primary historical documents that related to his research in the relatively young field of West Virginia history. Deeply concerned by the fact that West Virginia lacked the coordinating authority of a state library or historical society to protect its archival treasures—as many other states did have—Ambler felt that it was incumbent upon WVU, as West Virginia’s intellectual center, to ensure that the information resources that elucidated the state’s creation and early history were preserved for posterity.

Ambler’s dream became a reality in 1930 when the WVU Libraries allocated both storage and office space to house and process the University’s first important manuscripts acquisition: the papers of Senator Waitman T. Willey, considered by many to be the “Father of West Virginia.” Willey’s papers established the significance of the WVU Libraries’ historical collections in one fell swoop. Among the more than 7,500 items received in the Willey Collection was the senator’s May 29, 1862, presentation to the U.S. Senate which proposed the formation of a 35th state, to be carved out of the western portion of Virginia. The presentation led ultimately to the creation of West Virginia on June 20, 1863.

The Willey papers became the cornerstone of an archives and manuscripts collection that would grow by leaps and bounds in the ensuing years. The collection’s success was fostered by the opening in 1931 of a new main library consisting of seven stories, “just two less than Yale, the largest library in the U.S.,” as well as by the backing of WVU President John R. Turner. A native of Raleigh County, Turner had, in fact, instructed Head Librarian Lonnie Arnett to focus upon the collection of books and documents “pertaining to the history and physical characteristics” of the state shortly after his arrival at the University in 1928.

Aided by a “small compensation” and travel allowance, Ambler conducted a statewide survey during the summer of 1931 which identified more than 100 significant manuscripts collections stored in attics and warehouses across West Virginia. His efforts were rewarded by the immediate donation of a handful of the most important of these collections, including the papers of political and capitalist titans Johnson Newlon Camden and Henry Gassaway Davis, as well as those of another of the state’s founding fathers, Francis H. Pierpont. A native of Fairmont, Pierpont was elected governor of the “Reorganized Government of Virginia” which was established in Wheeling at the beginning of the Civil War. Along with the Willey Papers, these collections would irrevocably establish the WVU Libraries as the primary repository of information regarding West Virginia’s early political and economic history.

Ambler’s budding program was catapulted to even greater heights in 1933 when the WVU Board of Governors authorized the establishment of an “Institute of Legal History” at WVU. Among the institute’s goals was the “ascertainment, preservation, and cataloguing of ancient legal records” relating to West Virginia’s legal history. At its annual meeting in October 1933, the West Virginia Bar Association applauded the creation of the institute and formed a special committee charged with assisting in “the examination of records in counties established prior to 1800,” and “the removal wherever possible, of records to West Virginia University.” To head this important committee, the Bar Association selected Judge E.G. Smith, chairman of the WVU Board of Governors. The Board of Governors did its part to foster the initiative by formally establishing the “Division of Documents” at the WVU Libraries. The Division of Documents received the official mandate of state government when it was designated as a permissive depository for public records by an act of the state legislature on January 25, 1934.

In the months that followed, a steady stream of collections flowed into the WVU Libraries, including the voluminous county court records of Monongalia and Ohio counties. The job of cataloging and indexing these records, along with those of several more of West Virginia’s earliest counties which later arrived, got off to a running start in 1935 when funds from President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration were made available to hire 19 archival assistants through the Morgantown Federal “Relief Office.”

To assist Ambler, who continued to direct the program on an essentially volunteer basis, the 1935-1936 University budget provided for the hiring of the Division of Documents’ first full-time archivist, Festus P. Summers. A recent graduate of the WVU history program, Summers assumed full responsibility for the documents program two years later. Under his direction, and that of his successor, Oscar D. Lambert, the division continued its dramatic growth for the next decade and a half. In addition to the papers of West Virginia’s first governor, Arthur I. Boreman, and those of several of his successors, the first installment of the priceless collections of the great West Virginia antiquarian Roy Bird Cook entered the collection during this period.

The West Virginia Collection, as the Division of Documents came to be popularly known during the 1940s, assumed its present form under Charles Shetler, who was appointed curator in 1950. In addition to introducing modern archival practices and expanding the scope of the collection to include books, periodicals, and photographs, as well as the relatively new media of sound recordings and motion picture footage, Shetler’s methodical collecting program resulted in the expansion of the archives and manuscripts holdings from 375 collections to more than 1,500 over the next 16 years. This number would more than double from the 1970s to the 1990s under Shetler’s successors: James Hess, George Parkinson, John Cuthbert, and Nathan Bender.

A half century ago, in his first annual report, Curator Shetler noted that a sum total of 57 researchers had consulted the resources of the West Virginia Collection during the year 1950-1951. Today the collection serves more than 5,000 users annually. Its library of West Virginia books, periodicals, and newspapers is unmatched, as are its holdings of early West Virginia photographs, maps, broadsides, and sound recordings. The collection’s 3,383 various archives and manuscripts collections continue to embrace most of the deposited papers of the state’s political leaders, up to and including those of Governor Arch Moore and Senator Robert C. Byrd, as well as outstanding archival resources regarding all aspects of West Virginia’s economic and social history.

The Civil War and birth of West Virginia, the post-statehood exploitation of the state’s previously untapped wealth of natural resources, the intense and sometimes bloody conflict between labor and industry during the early 20th century, West Virginia’s colorful folk heritage, its genealogical significance as a gateway to the West—these are but a few of the many doors to which the West Virginia and Regional History Collection of the West Virginia University Libraries holds the keys.

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