I joined the staff at Pack Memorial Library in 1990 when I took the position of Special Collections Librarian. Lewis Buck was my closest associate in the North Carolina section. As I studied to get up to speed on Asheville history, he steered me toward the brief histories of Asheville and Buncombe County in Cabins and Castles, and he familiarized me with Sondley’s History of Buncombe County. He helped prepare me for the questions most often encountered, which often involved use of the vertical file collection compiled by generations of newspaper-clipping librarians. Lewis always shared his knowledge generously, his generosity matched by that of a third person, a volunteer named Sarah Upchurch.
Sarah Upchurch was an Asheville native, born in 1920. She studied history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill then taught in Concord. She returned to Asheville in 1948, resuming life in the house on Pearson Drive where she had grown up. History continued to interest her as she became active in preservation efforts, working to create the Montford Historic District and helping to form the Preservation Society. She also became a regular library volunteer at Pack Memorial. What a blessing.
Sarah was the ideal volunteer. She arrived every Tuesday morning to work from 9:00 to 12:00. She brought much knowledge of Asheville’s history, particularly its people, neighborhoods, and buildings. What she didn’t know she was ready to learn. She researched the early newspapers on microfilm, referenced history books and old city directories, and called up her many old-time acquaintances to find out what they knew. The Holmes house on Baird Street is an example. According to Sarah, it is the earliest wooden house still standing in Asheville. She spent hours talking with its resident, Edith Holmes, then took numerous photographs of the house for documentation. Those photos and the information about the house are part of the North Carolina collection today.
Sarah’s greatest legacy to the North Carolina Room is the catalog she made for the photograph collection. In those pre-automation days, she researched and identified each photo then hand wrote an index card describing it. The cards were stored in a wooden library card catalog drawer, each numbered to reference the correct photo. When the computer age arrived, those photos were scanned and Sarah’s notes transcribed into an archival database program. Her work remains at the core of the library’s photo collection.
When I think of Sarah, I recall how inquisitive she was. Her standard reply when asked a reference question: Who wants to know? Why does he want to know? She would work to provide an answer, but first she wanted to know the story behind it. She was also very opinionated. Downtown revitalization, the effort to save Richmond Hill, and the movement to revitalize the riverfront were among the hot issues of the time, and Sarah had things to say about them all. Not only did she voice her opinions, but she worked from her convictions to make events unfold as she felt they should.
Sarah began to volunteer in the North Carolina collection around 1980. She remained a regular weekly volunteer until 1993 when she moved to a retirement community in Chapel Hill to be near her sons. Once settled, she made her way over to the North Carolina Collection in Wilson Library on the UNC-CH campus. There she resumed her duties as a library volunteer, this time assisting the photograph librarian by cataloging old post cards from the Asheville area. She continued that job until her health failed, and she died in 2000.
Volunteers with the new Friends of the North Carolina Room are currently helping the department staff scan photographs into its archival database. Another volunteer is organizing architectural plans, and another recent volunteer sorted documents in the manuscript collection. The Friends of the Library also contribute. They organize and manage an ongoing book sale, the proceeds going to purchase special materials and equipment beyond the allotted budget. Through the years, volunteers have played an important role in the North Carolina Room, and we thank them all.
Thanks to Porge Buck, Betty Lawrence and John Toms for contributing to this article.
Post by Laura Gaskin, Head of Central Adult Services.