Staff Profile — Fran Tracy-Walls

Next in our staff profile series is Fran Tracy-Walls, Private Manuscripts Archivist in the Special Collections Section.

Tell us a little about your job.

My position has existed since 1907 when our General Assembly gave the Historical Commission (later the State Archives) a mandate to acquire and preserve the documentary heritage of North Carolina, including private papers. Dating from the 17th to the 21st centuries, materials here include letters, diaries, speeches, poems, photographs, family and business financial records, and much more, and serve to supplement and add a rich human and cultural dimension to public and governmental records. I develop and build these holdings by cultivating connections, reaching out to potential donors, and responding to inquiries. I handle the formalities of contracts so that the Archives has legal custody of holdings for which I am responsible; and I arrange and describe new sets of papers and collections and also those unarranged groups of manuscripts from the past, using  the available high and low-tech  tools of the trade to create finding aids and provide searchable index terms. Currently I supervise two highly qualified interns paid by the Frances H. Wynne Endowment, N.C. Genealogical Society.  As time allows, I create promotional materials and guides to raise awareness and assist in explaining to visitors, potential donors, and interns and volunteers what private papers are; how to care for them; and how to arrange them for long-term preservation and access; why they are important to N.C. citizens, students and others.

How long have you worked for the State Archives?

I was hired in June of 1991 as an Archivist for state agencies, with main tasks being to arrange and describe state agency records groups and series, and to research and write histories of agencies departments and commissions for the Archives first guide to state agency records, published in 1995. In 1996 I was hired by the Research & Development Unit, of the then N.C. Division of Archives & History. As a Digital Archivist, I supported the division’s research and development functions in the areas of electronic records and legal aspects of public records and performed a portion of the division’s website design and implementation. I later became an Access Archivist for Special Collections in the N.C. Archives & Records Section. My assignments included digitizing, encoding, and indexing legacy finding aids in private manuscripts; writing and putting together the web pages (a first)  for the components of the then Special Collections Branch; and building holdings and  arranging  and describing  Organization Records. In 2008 I was hired as Private Manuscripts Archivist.

Are you involved in any committees, DCR-wide programs, or professional organizations?

I serve on the Section’s Finding Aids Committee and the Backlog Committee. I have been singing since 2008 with the N.C. Dept. of Cultural Resources (NCDCR) EEO Diversity Choir.  Since 2010 I have sung soprano with the N.C. Master Chorale, which performs each year with the N.C. Symphony, under the umbrella of NCDCR. In the past my memberships and positions have included newsletter editor  and  member-at-large representative on the board of the Society of North Carolina Archivists, and  member and recording secretary of the former Div. of Archives & History Electronic Records Task Force.  In 1990 after earning my last graduate degree I was elected to Beta Phi Mu, an international library science honorary society.

Describe your educational or career background prior to working here.

My educational background includes:  Converse College, Spartanburg, S.C., liberal arts degree with majors  in history and English; University of N.C., Chapel Hill, Master of Arts in history; University of S.C., Columbia, Master of Library and Information Science, with concentration in archives.  As student at U.S.C., I was awarded a one-year fellowship in the Manuscripts Division of the South Caroliniana Library and subsequently worked in a special research project at the S.C. Dept. of Archives and History. Before that, career highlights consist of teaching history, some of them advanced placement courses at a high school in Tallahassee, Fla.; serving as planning specialist and grants writer for a Georgia and South Carolina regional Economic Opportunity Authority, Inc.; running a small business; and working as a free-lance photographer, journalist, and researcher.

What aspects of your job do you enjoy the most?

I love the opportunity to learn so much each day and to believe that I am contributing to our state’s rich cultural legacy.  Working with the private manuscripts, especially  letters, diaries, and the like, gives me insight into a wide range of fascinating people and the times and circumstances in which they lived. I relish interactions with many professionals in this department, yet I also cherish the experience of working with many college, graduate school, and post-graduate interns and volunteers who have come under my direction for the last ten  or so years.

What skills or traits do you think are needed to be successful at your job?

Many skills and traits are needed, including love of history and culture, coupled with the ability to effectively work with a variety of people; and the possession of broad and deep interdisciplinary thinking and training, plus curiosity, inquisitiveness, creativity, patience, sense of humor, flexibility, and much more.

Is there an aspect of your job that you never thought you would end up doing?

I never expected to bring a pliers and a crowbar from home so I could rescue photographs that come as a part of various private collections (many are encased in acidic papers, mats and wooden frames loaded with lignin, rusty hardware, and the like).  This was the opposite action from my past days as a free-lance photographer when I cut mats and assembled frames for my shows and exhibits.

What work-related accomplishment are you most proud of?

To narrow down to one specific accomplishment, I will name the processing and describing of the Theodore and Barbara Dreier Black Mountain Collection (PC.1956). Though this experimental college in the North Carolina mountains was of relatively short duration, 1933-1956, it drew many influential figures of national and international significance including artists and scientists escaping from Nazi Germany. The college sought a balance of academics, arts, creative thinking, and even physical labor, and had a profound impact on the region (eventually), and almost immediately on many 20th century artists and thinkers of national statue. It was an honor and challenge to work with papers of one of the college founders, Ted Dreier, and his wife who had an extraordinary circle of family, friends, and colleagues.  To meet a strict deadline and have the finding aid available online, I sought and received help from my colleagues, and even the labor and moral support from my wonderful husband. Yet I did the bulk of the work of this 82-box collection and somehow stayed sane while encoding a finding aid composed of seventeen sections that printed out to some six-hundred and thirteen pages.

Have you received any specialized training, certifications, awards, or recognitions?

I was elected through examination to Academy of Certified Archivists, 2000, and I am a graduate of Dept. of Cultural Resources Leadership Class, 2008-2010, and recognized as the only class member with perfect attendance (brought back grammar school memories).  My specialized training has been primarily in database design, workshops in encoding finding aids in EAD and Archivist’s Toolkit, and more recently, webinars on various technical and other subjects including the use of social media.

What’s the most interesting or unusual thing you’ve come across in a collection?

There are so many, but I will mention two handmade leather saddle bags (for a horse) filled with folded papers such  writs of execution, notes of debt, receipts, and summonses from a constable of  McDowell County, James McNeely (circa 1813-1887), PC.1906. The bags were customized to accommodate the sizes and types of documents.  McNeely’s papers also contain business correspondence and accounts from his businesses, a tavern, and general merchandise store. Just looking at those saddle bags conjures up images of McNeely on his horse traveling through the hills of that gorgeous, semi-wild county during the 1840s and 1850s–sometimes delivering bad news to constituents. Then I imagine McNeely stopping off at his or another tavern for home or forest-brewed libations, carefully removing his traveling filing cabinet, and prudently taking them inside. If only those two bags could talk.

Do you have a favorite collection or set of records?

I am enthusiastic about almost all of the private collections. If pressed, I will say that I have a soft spot for the sets of papers that offer rich insights into those who were left out or given scant acknowledgement in history books during the last century and before, namely women and minorities.  I love the diaries of women and girls that are part of various collections, especially those of the 19th century when most women did not benefit from an education; and I am gratified to notice and record all slave vital records, and other slave documents that give researchers clues that are often missing from public records. Two examples of diaries are the Margaret Eliza Cotten Journal, 1853-1854, PC.1977; and the recently received Ann Hudson Woodhull Diary. ca. 1846-1847, in the Dimock, Dickson, Arrowood Family Papers, PC.2065. Slaves records can be found in these examples of collections arranged or almost completed and/or revised in the last year: the George White Collection, PC.1979; Cuthbertson and McCollum Family Papers, PC.1961; Virginia Pou Doughton Papers, PC.1981; Hewitt A. Brown Collection, PC.2042; Zimmerman Family Papers, PC.2056;  Eleanor Troy Pippinger Collection, PC.2060; Matthew and Margaret Byrne Account Book, 1761-1864, Account Book, 76. There are many more and I continue to seek additions.

What’s the most challenging reference question you’ve been asked?

For a number of years I was on call for Black Mountain College-related reference questions (before the college-related collections were moved to the Regional Western Office in 2012). Many were fascinating, including one from a professor of philosophy and religious studies who wanted to know  elements of Zen Buddhism that were said to emerge  in what was later called the first “happening” in U.S. cultural history: also known as Theater Piece No 1 organized by John Cage at Black Mountain College in 1952. I poured through everything BMC-related in the State Archives, including later interviews with those who were there. He was grateful for the careful and helpful work and saw possibilities, but realized (as I had hoped) that he would eventually have to come to the Archives.

What would you want people to know about our collections or services that may not be widely known?

Including Accounts Books, our Private Collections number almost three thousand different collections. Many contain multiple boxes and/or volumes, adding up to thousands of containers.  These provide important resources for understanding North Carolina’s deep and wide cultural heritage, but they also supplement the wide array of public records preserved in the State Archives and in many cases fill in gaps when public records were destroyed or otherwise lost in the counties through fire and other calamities.  Additionally, Private Collections have provided documentation for genealogical quests, and will long continue as a family, social, cultural, and economic history gold mine.

Do you have any special memories or anecdotes about working here?

I have gained enormously from outstanding colleagues/supervisors, but looking back I think I benefited in a particular way from the vast knowledge, kindness, humor of the late George Stevenson.  I can say the same, on a somewhat different plane for a shorter term, of my experience with Mary Emma Harris, of the Black Mountain College Project, NYC. I worked with her from 2008 to 2010 when she was the consultant for the Theodore and Barbara Dreier Black Mountain College Collection project (PC.1956).  In addition to history, we had much in common, such as love of art, music, and a green salad for lunch finished off with an overflowing bowl of banana pudding.