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Our History

The Buncombe County Special Collections Library (formerly the North Carolina Room) is a medium-sized archival facility located on the lower level of Pack Memorial Library in Downtown Asheville. Buncombe County Special Collections specializes in the social, cultural, and natural history of Asheville, Buncombe County, and Western North Carolina.

The personal library of Foster Alexander Sondley forms the nucleus of Buncombe County’s special collections. The Sondley gift is an expansive collection of books, papers, and artifacts. A prominent local attorney and historian, Sondley bequeathed this large personal library, including all of the “brick-a-brac” therein to the City of Asheville upon his death in 1931. The collection was originally housed at Asheville City Hall and opened to the white public in 1935, but was moved to Pack Memorial Library in 1943 as a result of talks between the City of Asheville and the Library Board of Trustees, as well as the occupation of Asheville City Hall during wartime. In 1945, a librarian was named director of the Sondley Reference Library for the first time. At this time, the Sondley Library remained separate from the general reference collection at Pack Memorial Library until 1953, when the two libraries merged and duplicate materials were transferred into storage.

The stipulations in the will of F.A. Sondley compounded with cultural norms in the Jim Crow South prevented the integration of the Asheville Buncombe Library System. There was, however, a segregated branch library known as the “Market Street Branch” that operated independent of the public library system from 1927 until 1951 when the library, headed by Irene O. Hendrick, became a branch of the Asheville Buncombe Library System. Throughout the 1950s there were attempts to integrate the system, but the racist restrictions in the Sondley will prevented any progress. Eventually, on September 15, 1961, after facing pressure from a group of local students known as the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality (ASCORE) the Board of Trustees voted to integrate the library system. The library was officially integrated on September 29, 1961.

In 1973, the Sondley Library moved once again to the new Pack Memorial Library building on Haywood Street. At the time of the move, there were some 31,500 volumes in the collection, 1200 of which were rare and antique materials sequestered in a secure storage vault.

In 1987, Judge C. Walter Allen granted the Board of Trustees of the Asheville Buncombe Library system permission to proceed with the sale of a large portion of the Sondley Library. The sale included material that was “no longer to the benefit to the citizens of Buncombe County the patrons of the Asheville-Buncombe Library System.” The material was sold to Chapel Hill Rare Books for $375,000. Those funds went to establish a trust that can be utilized for the care and maintenance of the collection.

Buncombe County Special Collections the way we know it today began in the 1990s after the Sondley sale. In 1990, using a portion of the funds from the sale, the library hired a special collections consultant, Morgan Barclay (East Carolina University), to evaluate the library’s materials and storage facilities. Barclay outlined a 5-year plan to ensure the library’s rare and unique materials would be preserved. This plan resulted in new staff, and the eventual severance of the “North Carolina Collection” from the general reference department.

In 2009, during a major renovation of Pack Memorial Library, what was then called the North Carolina Collection was relocated from a corner of the reference department, to its own space on the lower level of the library. The move and renovation included the installation of a separate HVAC system that would help better preserve special collections materials. The move also ensured that a number of works in the book collection were saved from deteriorating UV damage, as many were stored in direct sunlight in their former location.

Buncombe County Special Collections is home to thousands of unique historical documents including maps, photographs, diaries, letters, books, and other archival material. Some of the material is housed in open stacks and are available without restriction for use within the BCSC reading room. Other collections, including, but not limited to, rare and antique books, maps, photographs, artifacts, artworks, and other material may be held in secured storage in light of their fragility, format, scarcity, or monetary value being among the considerations. Access to the library's Special Collections will be as open as possible given the need to preserve the materials.