Collections and Resources, Digital Library, Exhibits, Southern Historical Collection, Special Collections

Digital Launch Celebrates 80th Anniversary of UNC’s Southern Historical Collection

Page (dated 1945) from the Jacksonville, N.C. USO Visitor Book, now available online through the Digital Southern Historical Collection.

A self-portrait (dated 1945) from the Jacksonville, N.C. USO Visitor Book, now available online through the Digital Southern Historical Collection.

Eighty years after its founding in January 1930, the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Wilson Special Collections Library is inaugurating a program to digitize large segments of the collections.

The Digital Southern Historical Collection debuted Jan. 8 with thirty-five collections digitized in their entirety, plus two more that have been partially digitized.

The 8,627 scans reproduce diaries, letters, business records, and photographs that provide a window into the lives of Americans in the South from the 18th through mid-20th centuries. Visitors to the Digital Southern Historical Collection can view items that include:

  • Nineteenth-century diaries of plantation mistresses in Alabama, Mississippi, and North Carolina;
  • Photographs of the 1927 Mississippi River flood, one of the most destructive in the nation’s history;
  • The diary of Karen Parker, the first African American woman to attend UNC and a participant in civil rights protests of the 1960s; and
  • The visitor book from a United Service Organizations club in Jacksonville, N.C., for African American Marines during World War II.

All items are drawn from the stacks of the Southern Historical Collection (SHC). Its nearly16 million items make it one of the country’s largest centers for primary source documents about the region, said Tim West, the collection’s curator.

The program grew out of a two-year investigation funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to explore digitization possibilities for the SHC. “Extending the Reach of Southern Sources” brought together scholars, archivists and technology experts to examine challenges and set priorities.

Laura Clark Brown, senior research and instruction librarian and digital SHC coordinator, said that the SHC determined from the study that it should seek to place collections online in their entirety, rather than relying on librarians and archivists to extract and scan a selection of items.

The first area of concentration, said Brown, are collections documenting African American life and race relations in the American South. “These are some of our strongest collections with the highest demand,” said Brown.

Brown said that the SHC will continue to enhance and build the Digital SHC, with several dozen collections to be added every year.

For information about the Digital SHC, contact Brown:, (919) 962-1345.

Related Links

Exhibit: Eighty Years of Looking Back and Moving Forward: The Southern Historical Collection, 1930-2010
Jan. 15, 2010 – Apr. 30, 2010
4th Floor, Wilson Special Collections Library
Free and open to the public
Information: (919) 962-1345 or

Visitors to the Southern Historical Collection (SHC) can view an anniversary exhibit of 25 items that represent the range of the SHC’s strengths and activities.Eighty Years of Looking Back and Moving Forward presents items including:

  • A scrapbook of postcards compiled by the first director of the SHC, Joseph G. de Roulhac Hamilton, as he traveled across the American South collecting manuscripts from the 1920s through the 1940s;
  • A Civil War letter and enlistment documents from the B.F. Little Papers;
  • Images of the 1927 Mississippi River flood that devastated the Lower Mississippi Valley and forced thousands of African American refugees to live in tents issued by the federal government.
  • Photographs of Depression-era sharecroppers in Georgia and Mississippi by rural sociologist Arthur Franklin Raper.
  • The “Clinton tapes,” compiled by journalist and historian Taylor Branch from his White House interviews with Bill Clinton between 1993 and 2001.