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'A hidden gem': Students and librarians discuss archival research at UNC

Books from the Wilson Library Research Room are pictured on Monday, July 10, 2023.

Participating in archival research is an amazing opportunity for students' undergraduate experience,  Matthew Turi, the UNC manuscripts research and instruction librarian, said.

However, archival research at UNC can be complicated for first-time users, he said, and even the Wilson Library itself can seem imposing to students new to the process.

Located in front of Polk Place, this library houses many special collections full of archived material such as the University Archives, the Southern Historical Collection and the Rare Book Collection.

Turi said that librarians and archivists are available at Wilson Library to help students with archival research.

Lolita Rowe, the assistant University archivist for outreach and engagement, said students typically begin the research process by emailing Wilson Library with information on the topic they're interested in.

A librarian or archivist will follow up with the student and recommend materials and aid for their research.

She said that once the appropriate materials have been located, a student can make an appointment to view the archives in the Research Room in Wilson Library. 

According to Rowe, students are allowed to physically touch most of the archival material, but must use gloves when handling photographs.

“The fun part is actually looking through it and discovering something that you need,” Rowe said. “And it's almost like a treasure hunt, or it's like this idea that your knowledge is there; you just have to dig for it.”

Turi said that the Research Room is always staffed so students can ask for assistance when engaging with the archives.

“Oftentimes people will find a word or phrase and they're like, ‘What does this mean?’” Turi said. “And we're all interested in trying to decode that.”

Some classes at UNC require students to study archival material for assignments and classwork.

UNC junior Gabriella Montes said she studied the New Roots: Voices from Carolina del Norte! archive through the Southern Oral History Program and the University Libraries for Latin American Studies 390: Special Topics in Latin American Studies.

The New Roots archive is a digital collection that contains bilingual oral histories that document stories of Latin American and Caribbean immigration to the U.S. South.

“I looked through a bunch of those interviews to get an idea of what I wanted to write about,” Montes said. “As well as talking to my professor, Dr. Hannah Gill, and she helped me so much in just perfecting this final project.”

The two interview recordings that Montes collected for this project will be uploaded to the New Roots archive. 

The Incubator Awards provide financial support to students who use archives as inspiration or sourcing for a creative project.

Individual grant recipients obtain $1,000 toward their research and collaborative groups can earn up to $3,000. Recipients of the Incubator Awards present their projects every April in a showcase. 

UNC graduate student De’Ivyion Drew was a grant recipient in the Incubator Awards for the 2019-20 school year.

Drew’s group used archival material to inform their short film, #BlackOutLoudUNC, which was about the experiences of Black students at the University.

“I used these archives in collaboration with my group members, Jerry J. Wilson and Cortland Gilliam, to listen to oral histories of the Black Pioneers, read dissertations that researched the legacy and impact, and reviewed other primary source materials at the Wilson Library, where we met with archivists regularly that assembled information valuable to our group and our Incubator project," Drew said in an email statement.

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Rowe said the archives at Wilson Library are "a hidden gem" that they don’t want hidden. She said she wants everyone to feel welcome in the archival space.

“Archives, we're not a warehouse; we're a repository,” Rowe said. “And we're here to not only engage with you, but to help you on your journey. We don't tell you what to think. But we show you how to engage with the materials."


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