The bits and bobs of Nashville’s history are unique, colorful and, until now, have been warehoused in a few different places, making accessibility for the public, historians and archivists a challenge.
That will change over the next few months. Millions of artifacts and documents will be joined as the Metro Archives move downtown to the Nashville Public Library.
As home to the Nashville Room, the library has long been a history buff’s dream. When the new building opened in 2001, a large space created for that collection allowed for many pieces that had been stored out of public view to see the light of day again.
That will be the case with the Metro Archives, as well. Many pieces are warehoused in a Metro facility off Elm Hill Pike rather than on public display in the archives’ current home in Green Hills, says Ken Fieth, Metro archivist.
“We’ve been in Green Hills for about 13 years,” he says. “We moved some things out of Elm Hill when the new branch library opened and we took their old space by the mall.
“It was a good move for us because we were overcrowded at Elm Hill, but we are overcrowded in Green Hills, as well.”
This is the second proposal for archive relocation in the last two years. A bid to move to the Hickory Hollow Mall as part of an expanded Metro presence there was quickly squashed by various stakeholders.
There are financial considerations, too. The Green Hills property is only Metro’s to use for a library or related function, so it will revert back to its private owners once the archives move out.
First Tuesday at The Archives
On the first Tuesday of each month, the Metro Archives host a historical lecture on topics of local interest. Past gatherings have explored the history of Fort Negley, as well as local celebrities such as Adelicia Acklen. The one-hour lectures take place at 2:30 p.m. at the archives’ Green Hills location, 3801 Green Hills Village Dr., adjacent to the Green Hills Mall.
Those individuals, who wish to remain anonymous, have made arrangements for a multimillion-dollar sale to a developer, and have said they will be donating $664,000 of the proceeds to the Nashville Public Library Foundation.
5 million items in central spot
As for the collection itself, there’s a lot to see, so a central location will be a boon for those interested in what’s offered. There are more than five million items in the archives, all relating in some way to Nashville and Metro government.
There are documents and items going back to the 1700s, everything from old court and family records to the last will and testaments of President James K. Polk and his wife, Sarah.
Having all of those either on site, or available to retrieve from storage fairly quickly, will be a huge bonus to the already-busy library, says Kent Oliver, library director.
“The Green Hills building has some challenges in terms of climate control and space for the archives,” Oliver says. “The focus of libraries is constantly changing, and so we’ve been looking, as we do frequently, at how our space is configured.
“As we looked at some shelving space no longer in use, and how our third floor is laid out, it just began to make a lot of sense to have the archives here.
“We’re creating a dynamic where you have the collections in the Nashville Room and Civil Rights Room, which are historical in nature, and then someone can access the Metro Archives or take a short walk up to the state collection at the Tennessee Library and Archives.
“Having everything in close proximity will make research much easier, and allow the collections to work together more closely.”
‘Public face of archives’
Among the the Metro archives are naturalization papers. In this 1861 example, George Thomas Shaw renounced his UK citizenship but inserted “Confederate States of America” instead of United States.
The Metro Archives will live on the library’s third floor, in the west wing where the reference sections used to be. Over the next 18 months, renovation will create both a “public face of the archives” and configure storage areas, Oliver says.
“The archives staff will be looking at the materials and deciding what needs to remain available to the public as they walk in, and what materials can be stored in other areas for retrieval when someone requests them,” Oliver says.
“We’re working to set things up so that if someone wants something, they’ll be able to get it fairly quickly. We’re also working on some better alternatives on how the stored materials are managed, as far as climate and conditions go, so that they are kept in better condition.”
That said, Oliver is quick to point out that no matter where materials are located, access to them “will be as good, or better, than it ever has been.
“Once the collection is here, we’re not going to massively weed or change it.”
“The things that are there now will be there in the future. But now people will be able to get to documents and materials faster, and other things such as parking are going to be much improved as well.”
The renovated area will have three sections: One for the records themselves, one for researchers to use and one for Metro staff.
Getting ready to move treasures
As for the archives themselves, the next big job will be assessing them for condition before preparing them for another move.
“The 19th century court documents are bound, and so they’re in pretty good condition to move,” explains Fieth. “It’s just a matter of wrapping them in acid-free paper, putting them in acid-free boxes and packing them so they won’t be jostled.
“Our moving crews know to treat everything gently. The main thing to do is to wrap everything so that it won’t be moved around within the boxes. And for loose papers, or books that have lost their bindings, we’ll be putting them in archival paper and labeling them so they stay together during the process. It’s just about stabilizing everything we have, and then getting it ready to go.”
That includes taking extra-special care of some particularly well-loved items. Like Oliver, Fieth admits to a certain fondness for the Polks’ wills, as well as some of the older court records that predate statehood.
“It’s like teaching school,” he says. “I have my pets. I’m also a big World War II buff, so I like some of the documents from the 1940s, too. The thing about the archives is that they have a very intense local significance, and even some national significance as well.
“For instance, besides the Polk material we’ve also got some items from Teddy Roosevelt and other presidents, so there are collections within the collection. Some are just everyday things, but it all ties together.”
A self-professed history buff, Oliver says that he too is drawn by the mix of the ordinary and unusual within the archives.
“The court records, old issues of Harper’s Bazaar …it’s just interesting,” he says. “And it’s heavily used. If someone is doing genealogical work, the archives are often their first stop.
“That’s why we have been talking so much with the archives staff, and with the Friends of the Archives, to make sure that everyone who interacts with this collection knows that we are aware of how important it is.”