You might say Sarah Koonts is in charge of North Carolina’s attic. Koonts, who got her master’s in public history at NC State in 1993, is the state archivist (official title: director, N.C. Division of Archives and Records). She’s responsible for keeping track of more 100 million items that include government records, documents and maps that tell North Carolina’s history. Koonts and her staff combed through the archives to select a smattering of historic documents for a new exhibit at the N.C. Museum of History titled “Treasures of Carolina: Stories from the State Archives.” The exhibit runs through June 19, 2016. We caught up with Koonts to talk to her about her job and the exhibit.
What does a state archivist do? Half of my job is to care for the permanent collections in state archives. These are things we decided have historical value for all time, records that preserve our liberties or speak to the state’s history. The other half is working with state and local governments and advising them on what kind of records they are keeping, to identify the kinds of records that need to be kept. For instance, minutes of local government boards are important. The minutes of the Board of Trustees of NC State are as well. We are looking for things that document policy.
What sparked your interest in this kind of work? I have always enjoyed history. When I came through the public history program at NC State, I enjoyed the fact that it was a mix of traditional history and hands-on work. As a student, I did a lot of work with the state archives. I didn’t see myself as a teacher – but in a way, this is a different kind of teaching. It’s more adult education, as we help people do genealogical and historical research. And we intersect with kids as well. It’s a way to use history that’s not classroom-based.
How did the idea for this exhibit come up? We reach thousands of people – we have 24,000 inquiries annually. We’re very busy, but we thought, let’s take our stories out to a larger audience. We have over 100 million items, and there’s a neat story behind a lot of them. What we want to do is let the stories behind the documents tell the larger picture of how the state archives does its work.
Tell us about some of the items on exhibit. Do you have a favorite? I don’t know if I have a favorite, but here are some examples. We work with the court system, and we selected a map from the Supreme Court file of the case of Tom Dula. That, of course, became the ballad “Tom Dooley.” To tell the story of preserving our county records, we pulled out the records ofChang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese twins, who petitioned to be citizens. We have on display the oldest will in the state, in 1665. It’s interesting that it’s for a woman because women didn’t have many property rights in those days. Some are funny, some are a little more poignant. We have a letter written to a Civil War soldier from his wife, who asks him what to name their new baby. The letter (left) is cut into the shape of a baby’s hand.
Are all of the records old? We have modern records. We have correspondence from Gov. Terry Sanford as well as correspondence from Gov. Zebulon Vance, who was governor during the confederacy. And we are increasingly capturing social media and web sites, since these are major ways the public communicates with government. We have a whole section on display on emails. We find funny oddities all the time. We have things that John Adams and George Washington signed, and those are great, but sometimes it’s the day-to-day things that are more interesting.