Primary Sources

State archivist Sarah Koonts
State Archivist Sarah Koonts

Preserving history at the NC Archives.

A classic elevator ‘ping!’ announces each visitor’s arrival to the search room in the State Archives building on Jones Street. Long work desks with sturdy document props, reference librarians and a wall lined with card catalogues await guests. State archivist Sarah Koonts says that in addition to the usual genealogy investigators, this time of year there are a handful of students working towards master’s degrees and doctorates. Here they sit, brows furrowed, papers to one side and notebooks or computers to the other. 

Koonts started working at the archives as an NC State student in 1992. The distinctive siren call of government records drew her in and kept her working her way up through the building, with a brief detour to the State Records Center located a few steps away. 

Now, Koonts serves as the archives’ director. With 190,000 cubic feet of documents—and an estimated 2,000 sheets of paper per cubic foot—it’s nothing to sneeze at. Koonts oversees two parts of the archival mission: the archives themselves and the records created every day by normal government function. 

In the archives, manuscripts, letters, military histories, posters, photographs and motion pictures need care and attention. With incoming records, staffers sift through for the two to three percent of materials that have long-term value. In the moments when staffers aren’t engaged with researchers, there’s always something to be arranged, catalogued or scanned. 

“What’s really transitioned,” Koonts says, “is we used to do a lot of business solely in person. Now we do that same amount of business, but two-thirds of it is remote.” 

Registers of deeds, Civil War pensions, most of the archive’s collection of maps, photos (via Flickr) and selections from other records are available online. Digitizing must be a selective process, Koonts explains, because indexing still requires human time and skill. Archivists have to sit down, skim the material and write a quick summary. 

Original map of Raleigh

Each year, the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources picks a theme to center around, which helps the archivists decide what gets digital priority. In 2020, for instance, the Department will celebrate a century of women’s suffrage, kicking off this month with an event at the State Capitol. For the archivists, this means digitizing and uploading more work related to women effecting change, the suffrage and anti-suffrage movements and documents from Lillian Exum Clement, the North Carolina woman who won a legislative seat before she could even vote and the first to serve in a state legislature in the South. 

The archives’ mission is to give visitors as much access to original documents as possible, to hold in their hands and turn over and lift to the light. But the search room doesn’t have the library smell you’d expect; instead, the stacks do. In the back rooms, the promising scent of old ink, yellowed paper and leather fills the space, along with fluorescent light and seemingly endless rows of shelves separated by a slim aisle. 

Archivists try to keep frequently requested records close at hand. Behind a heavy vault door, special treasures sit in the chill of 54 degrees. There’s a letter from newly elected President Washington to the state’s governor and his counsel. There’s an original map of Raleigh. And there’s a letter from John Adams to North Carolinian members of the Continental Congress explaining his ideas of democracy, written in 1776. 

And then there are two particular favorites, affectionately known as “Chuck and Bill.” Chuck is the North Carolina charter of 1663, complete with a stern portrait of King Charles II. Bill is North Carolina’s copy of the Bill of Rights, stolen at the close of the Civil War and circulated until an FBI sting operation in 2003 led to its return to the archives. 

While some of the archivists’ work involves sweeping historical victories, it’s often more about paying attention to small details, hearing out a person who has brought in a snarled genealogy with a complex question. 

Koonts encourages visits from all who are curious, even if visitors have no idea of where to start.

“‘Great!,” she tells these guests. “Tell me where you’re at and we’ll go from there.’ We’re equipped to deal with someone who just started genealogy to someone who’s been doing it and has a very, very complicated problem. That’s what we’re here for. All you’ve got to do is ask.” 

As for her favorite resource?

“At the end of the day, if you use [any document] to end your genealogy roadblock, that’s the most important document we have that day,” Koonts says. “Glad we can have it.”

Check out the NC Archives exhibit “She Changed the World: NC Women Breaking Barriers” at the State Capitol September 7 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. To arrange a tour of the state archives, call 919-814-6840 or visit archives.ncdcr.gov.

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