Contributed by Bryan Giemza, Director of the Southern Historical Collection
What do you do for the Southern Historical Collection?
My chief responsibility is to build and develop a high-research-value Collection, and to preserve the items in our care. An important part of that process is connecting talented people who are passionate about the Collection with the resources to achieve its vision. I’m enjoying playing a part in shaping that vision, too.
My work as director is tremendously varied, which is one of the fun things about the position. On any given day I might be traveling a backroad or rummaging in an attic to appraise a collection, meeting with donors and colleagues to solicit input, or making a presentation on some aspect of the work we do. It’s my astonishing good fortune to meet with cultural creators and innovators of every description, and to take part in the larger exchange of ideas about the history and culture of a fascinating region.
What did you do before joining the Southern Historical Collection?
My journey to the SHC unfolded as part of an academic path. You can learn more about my background by having a look at my curriculum vitae. I’m a graduate of Notre Dame and UNC (tarheel born and bred), and I count myself a “graduate” of the Appalachian Trail, too. As a graduate of UNC Law, I’ve taught courses in law, the environment, and the humanities, too.
Prior to arriving at the SHC, I was a tenured associate professor of American Literature at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. So, what I did was what professors do: I wrote and edited five books, I taught lots of courses in history and literature, and, most rewarding, I tried to make a difference in my students’ lives in my capacity as a teacher, mentor, fellow sojourner. I’m continuing on the academic journey, with several books in the pipeline, and teaching opportunities—but with the SHC, I have a wonderful new canvas and new ways of directing my energies.
How did you get into this line of work?
As a literary scholar with a historical turn of mind, it might be said that the SHC has always been a central part of my work, always been a companion. I’ve benefited immensely from its resources as a researcher, and my career has been shaped by its centrality in the academic understanding of American and regional culture. I’ve been inspired by, and benefited from, the organizations, publications, and partners that have grown out of the Collection: The Center for the Study of the American South, the Southern Oral History Project, the Southern Folklife Collection, and the journal Southern Cultures. Not to mention the great programs in American studies, folklore, history, and literature. For someone with my intense curiosity, it’s a delight to be at the hub where all these things come together.
I have some other important jobs, too: I’m a father and husband and occasional swamper. I love to write, and I’m currently at work on a novel. It’s a kind of morally purposeful thriller, set in the coastal Carolinas and Central Americas of the 1970s, about a Vietnam veteran turned smuggler.
What do you like about your job?
E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G. And I’m not exaggerating. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t marvel at how fortunate I am to be a part of the Southern Historical Collection and the University. We have a young, energetic, and inspired team here at the SHC, and I learn from my colleagues every day. I get to see how circles of generosity ripple outward. As I like to say, we’re in the business of outrageous generosity, which is the very best business, after all. Most of all, I like the way the job allows me to pursue service to others, which, as Bill Friday often suggested, is key to a meaningful life.
I recently heard an anecdote from friends in the North Carolina Collection about Charles Kuralt’s father. It was said that he planted trees and worked on landscaping at every place the family lived, even when they were renters. This didn’t quite compute for young Charles, since they would be moving on, but his father pointed out that you should always leave a place better than you found it. When I was moonlighting in wetland restoration during graduate school, I saw the truth of that as we planted trees to establish forests that we would not see during our lifetime. The best jobs, I think, are never finished, and you may not get to see the ends. Similarly, the best stories don’t end, and the SHC is a continuously written chapter in the larger volume of history. We might be the longest-standing collection of our type, and we are only beginning….
What are you working on right now? What are some new and exciting projects on the horizon?
Right now I’m focused on leading the strategic planning process for the Southern Historical Collection, and aligning our work with the vision of Wilson Library, the University Library, and the many academic communities and constituencies we serve. We have a clear sense of where we want to be in five years, and we are setting out with a unified plan and sense of purpose. I’m excited about gathering the resources to realize our vision, and to grow the collection in new areas and with new initiatives. For example, I’m developing plans to reach out to the Latino communities that are an important part of our state and region, and that will make crucial contributors to our collections.
I’m just coming back from an energizing trip in which Biff Hollingsworth and I crisscrossed the state of Mississippi: four days, five collections, six or more donor meetings, and over 700 miles. And at least two catfish suppers. One promising element from the trip that is on the horizon: a chance to support the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance. We are privileged to have a chance to participate in building sustainable communities through historic preservation!
P.S. I’m going to follow Chaitra and offer a little help in pronouncing my (Polish) surname: it’s pronounced GEM-za, with a hard G, to rhyme with stem-za…!