A Place for the Past
WVU’s downtown library offers surprises dating back to the 1300s inside the West Virginia and Regional History Collection and Special Collections.
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When you get off the elevator on the sixth floor of WVU’s Wise Library, you’ll see nothing unusual, just row after row of bookshelves. But go around the corner and through the heavy wooden doors, and you’ll think you’re in a museum. And you are, sort of. This is the West Virginia and Regional History Collection and Special Collections, and it’s part museum, part library, part archives.
After signing in at the reception desk, you step into the main room—a bright, cavernous space lined with bookshelves with thick carpet to dull sound. Visitors sit at computer terminals or at large wooden tables that dot the room. Other rooms branch off, beckoning visitors to explore the vast collection. It’s the largest and most extensive grouping of historical books and early manuscripts in the state. Items from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson sit alongside local family histories, recordings, photographs, and old high school yearbooks. Anyone is welcome to peruse, and among the shelves and tables, there’s sure to be something of interest.
Love music? Listen to the rare recordings of mountain fiddle players made 20 years before traditional Appalachian music was on the radio. “Those recordings are a super treasure,” says John Cuthbert, curator and director of the West Virginia and Regional History Collection and Special Collections. The collection also includes festival pamphlets, brochures, and clippings dating back decades. Need a guide to the Preston County Buckwheat Festival from 1976? You’ll find it here. “When people come looking for something, we almost always have it,” says Kevin Fredette, coordinator of public services.
Many people come to learn more about their own past. Christy Venham, a library associate, says employees help visitors get started researching based on the information the visitor has, which is sometimes only a family name or a hometown. Christy says an elderly man once came in with a special request. “He had heard we had a recording of his father, who had been gone for many years. We found it. He was absolutely thrilled to hear his father’s voice.”
This summer, the museum part of the collection offers a lesson in West Virginia Civil War History, including artifacts like Stonewall Jackson’s penknife, letters, and pencil box. There is also a collection of telegrams between General Grant and General Lee as they negotiated the terms of the end of the war.