Western Carolina University joined forces with Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the latest addition to its digital collections, housed at Hunter Library.
“Picturing Appalachia” is a collection of more than 1,000 early 20th-century photographs that provides a glimpse into the life, culture and natural landscape of the Southern Appalachian mountains in and around Western North Carolina.
The collection includes images by popular Great Smoky Mountains National Park photographer James E. Thompson, whose work is housed at park headquarters in Sugarlands, Tenn. A memorandum of understanding between the university and the park allowed Hunter Library to digitize the historic photographs.
“It just makes them a lot more accessible to people around the world,” said John McDade, museum curator at the park. Not only can people access the images more easily, but it also protects the images from handling, McDade said.
Thompson and his brother, Robin (whose work also is in the new collection), ran the Thompson Brothers Commercial Photography business in Knoxville, Tenn., making images for park supporters and various other regional tourism and business interests.
WCU staff also selected groups of pictures from Hunter Library’s own special collections, including work by George Masa, who photographed and documented the Mount Mitchell Motor Road, giving tourists a glimpse of America’s highest peak east of the Mississippi. Masa is well known for working with Horace Kephart, an authority on the cultural and natural history of the region, to build support for establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The collection also comprises the work of other, lesser-known photographers, including A.L. Ensley, a Jackson County farmer who photographed families in formal portraits at his home studio.
“It is these pictures – along with the growth of the railroad and the publication of various travel brochures – that have made Western North Carolina a popular travel destination,” said Anna Fariello, associate research professor at Hunter Library who coordinates digital archiving efforts.
Users can search “Picturing Appalachia” by photographer, source institution or by topic, which includes botanicals, cities and towns, portraits, industry, landscapes, transportation, and travel and tourism. Descriptions included in each entry include biographical information about the photographer and other facts.
Images from other photographers, including R.A. Romanes, who documented communities and towns in WNC and counties in north Georgia and east Tennessee, are planned for addition. To complete the collection, the library’s digital production team also will scan and upload a number of 19th-century travel brochures.
Functioning as an open-access database and interactive, educational Web-based resource, the images are part of a growing online archive resulting from the library’s digital initiatives program. “Picturing Appalachia” takes its place along with the library’s other digital collections, including ones for the craft revival, Cherokee traditions and Kephart, as well as the sound collection “Stories of Mountain Folk,” all of which can be accessed from www.wcu.edu/library/
The digital collection has grown in large part through partnerships with entities including the WCU Mountain Heritage Center, John C. Campbell Folk School, Southern Highland Craft Guild, Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual and the N.C. Office of Archives and History.
“As a regional public institution and through collaboration with cultural partners, Hunter Library is committed to building regionally oriented, historically significant digital collections of broad research interest,” said Dana Sally, dean of library services.
The “Picturing Appalachia” project was made possible through an award of $71,574 from the State Library of North Carolina. The university and Great Smoky Mountains National Park will partner again for Hunter Library’s next digital collection, which will focus on the park’s history, Fariello said.
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