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NC Community College Archives Association: Preserving the past, framing the future

The birth of the North Carolina Community College System is often cited as May 17, 1963, when the Omnibus Higher Education Act (G. S. 115A) created a new Community College System and Department of Community Colleges under the supervision of the State Board of Education. In addition, the act created the Consolidated University System. Others trace the birth of our current system back to April 3, 1958, when the State Board of Education established the first six Industrial Education Centers (Leaksville-Rockingham County, Guilford, Burlington, Durham, Wilmington, Goldsboro) with the seventh (Wilson) added on April 11, 1958. These first seven Industrial Education Centers would eventually grow to 20 by 1963 and would form the nucleus of the new system. However, the entire community college movement in North Carolina began in 1927 with the opening of the first public two-year college, Buncombe County Junior College (now UNC-Asheville), in Asheville, North Carolina.

Our current community college system is only 61 years old, with its roots stretching back just 92 years — yet the records, documents, images, publications, letters, films, recordings, and people that help to tell its story either no longer exist, or are quickly disappearing. 

I began to discover the rapid loss of the history of our community colleges in 2003 while teaching English at Davidson County Community College. I spoke to several faculty members who were hired when the college opened in 1963, who shared their knowledge of how the school began. After realizing how fragile and rare this history was, as well as the fact that many across the state had not thought about preserving it, I soon began researching the history of the community college system throughout North Carolina while simultaneously beginning to think of ways to ensure its survival.

After taking a position as an English Instructor at Randolph Community College in 2004, I began researching the history of Randolph Community College and, in the fall of 2004, began talking with Debbie Luck, dean of library services, about establishing a college archives collection. In 2005, a college archives collection was established at Randolph Community College. Our library staff and marketing staff helped to develop a college archives web page and worked with the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center to digitize a number of materials in the collection.

From 2010-2012, I conducted intensive research on the industrial education centers (forerunners to North Carolina’s community colleges), which led me across the state to various community college and university archives. In 2012, I led a movement to have a North Carolina State Highway Historical Marker placed at the site of the first industrial education center to open in 1958 in Eden, North Carolina. In the fall of 2012, I was asked to serve on the North Carolina Community College System’s 50th Anniversary Committee from 2012-2013, and assisted with developing an exhibit on the history of the NC Community College System at the North Carolina Museum of History.

From 2012-2014, I visited archive collections at 12 community colleges and five universities across the state to assess their condition and observe best practices. Through these visits, I discovered that many collections were sparse, unorganized, poorly staffed, and undervalued. I also discovered that one community college in the system had discarded its entire archives collection and that the entire history of the college had been lost. I realized that this could easily occur at other institutions across the state and perhaps had already occurred. Much to my surprise, even the North Carolina Community College System Office had discarded many of its historical documents and materials, which documented the evolution of the system.

Forming an association to preserve the history of NC Community Colleges

This background research prompted me to talk with Debbie Luck in June of 2016 and propose the idea of forming a statewide association that could serve as a collective voice to advocate for the preservation of institutional archives and the history of the North Carolina Community College System. Luck agreed that it would be a good idea, and we reached out to Erin Allsop at Central Piedmont Community College in late June. At the time, Allsop was the only full-time college archivist in the community college system.

We began making plans to form the association and brought Jenny Thomas, electronic services librarian at Randolph Community College, on board to assist with communication. We developed a mission statement for the association in early August and surveyed all 58 community colleges in September to determine if there was interest in an archives association. Nearly all community colleges responded favorably. A planning committee was formed in November 2016 and this group laid the groundwork for the formation of the association.

First Row, Left to Right: Clark Adams, Lisa Gregory, Jenny Thomas, Monica Young, Samantha O’Connor, Andrea Gabriel, Amanda Winfrey, Peggy Higgins, Stephanie Johnson, Kristen Merryman Second Row, Left to Right: Dr. Harry Cooke, Erin Allsop, Rebekah Scott, Christy Earp, Debbie Luck Third Row, Left to Right: Calvin Craig, Dr. Parker Chesson, Spencer Tart, Amber Jacks, Gloria Pitts, Shirley Outlaw, Sebrina Mabe. Courtesy of the North Carolina Community College Archives Association

The first official meeting of the association was held at Randolph Community College on Dec. 2, 2016. Dr. Bob Shackleford, president of Randolph Community College, welcomed the group and George Fouts, interim president of the North Carolina Community College System from 2015-2016, spoke to the group about the importance of preserving the history of North Carolina’s community colleges.

A constitution and by-laws were created in March 2018 and officer descriptions were developed in May 2018. The third meeting of the association was held at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Wilson Library in August 2018 where the inaugural officers were installed and members were provided a tour of the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center and University Archives.

In the fall of 2018, a survey was conducted to determine the needs of members, and the greatest need as evidenced by the survey was archival training. The Executive Board began to set up training sessions for 2018 and 2019. The first was held in November 2018 at South Piedmont Community College in Polkton and was led by Katie Howell, university archivist at UNC-Charlotte. Last month, Erin Lawrimore, university archivist, offered a training session and tour of the university archives and special collections at UNC-Greensboro. 

Plans are underway to offer another training conducted by Heather South (lead archivist of the Western Regional Archives branch of the State Archives of North Carolina) at the North Carolina Community College Library Association conference at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College on March 28. In addition, two other trainings are being planned for this spring, one at Robeson Community College and the other at the State Archives of North Carolina.

As our community colleges begin to move into the next 60 years, it is imperative that we preserve the thoughts, ideas, intentions, motives, perspectives, decisions, and voices of our pioneers. Through the preservation of letters, reports, articles, documents, and other archival material from the past, our visionary founders, pioneers, and early employees of our colleges can provide us with advice and wisdom that will lead us forward. This knowledge of our past will help us to avoid previous mistakes, yet will also provide insight into successful ventures that could prove fruitful for the future.

Although many of those who were part of the beginnings of our community colleges are no longer physically with us, the archival collections that document the history of each of our institutions helps to preserve and honor their memory, and in most cases, their entire life’s work that they devoted to establishing and developing our community college system.  As the North Carolina Community College Archives Association moves forward, it is my hope that each of our 58 institutions will recognize the importance and significance of documenting the stories of their establishment, growth, and development since their inception by establishing their own college archives collections. Our association is here to support those efforts, and is ready, willing, and able to help.

The 2018-2019 Executive Board consists of the following:

  • Clark Adams, President (Instructor, English/Communication, Randolph Community College)
  • Peggy Higgins, Vice President (Systems/Access Librarian, AB-Technical Community College)
  • Stephanie Johnson, Secretary (Librarian, Fayetteville Technical Community College)
  • Amanda Winfrey, Treasurer (Library Circulation Assistant, South Piedmont Community College)
  • Jenny Thomas, Communications Officer (Electronic Services Librarian, Randolph Community College)
  • Dr. Parker Chesson, Retiree Representative (President, College of the Albemarle, 1975-1992)
  • Helen Colevins, NCCCS Representative (Community Engagement Librarian, NCCCS)
  • Sarah Koonts, State Archives Representative (State Archivist, State Archives of North Carolina)
  • Erin Lawrimore, University Archivist Representative (University Archivist, UNC-Greensboro)
For more information about the association, visit our website.
Clark Adams

Clark Adams is the president of the North Carolina Community College Archives Association and a full-time faculty member at Randolph Community College.