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Perspective | North Carolina Community College Archives Association preserves fragile history

Richard Moe, an attorney and historic preservation advocate who served as the president for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, once said, “Protecting this country’s heritage … from fishing villages to city neighborhoods, from barns to courthouses, from historic bridges to older schools, from urban parks to rural landscapes … will help make America a better place … Preservation ensures that future generations will have a past to appreciate.” 

The history of our North Carolina community colleges is fragile. After discovering just how much of that history had already been lost through my research of the North Carolina Community College system between 2003 and 2016 — which took me to community colleges across the state — I decided to create a statewide association to try to save what is left. 

I developed the idea for the North Carolina Community College Archives Association in 2016 and, with the assistance of Debbie Luck, retired dean of library services at Randolph Community College; Erin Allsop, college archivist at Central Piedmont Community College; and Jenny Thomas, director of library services at Randolph Community College, we formed a planning committee that year that built the foundation for the association.

The association has grown by leaps and bounds since 2016. The second annual North Carolina Community College Archives Association conference was held on August 4, 2023, at Randolph Community College with over 60 people from across the state in attendance. The conference shared resources on conducting oral history programs, creating archives collections, understanding the history of the system, and engaging alumni. Community college faculty and library staff from across the state shared their expertise, as well as university archivists and staff from the State Archives of North Carolina and the State Library staff. People came from as far as Sylva to the west and Elizabeth City to the east.  

The association has grown in membership from 90 members in spring of 2022 to 148 members as of August 4, 2023, representing 54 out of 58 community colleges. The membership consists of current and former community college library staff and faculty, university archives staff, the State Archivist of North Carolina, staff members of the State Archives and the State Library, a retired community college president and a current community college president, an interim president of the system, and system office staff. The association has begun working closely with marketing staff at the system office to provide historical photos and information to help promote our community colleges and answer historical questions that often arise at various institutions. Members also work closely with State Archives of North Carolina staff members.

The mission of the association is to promote the establishment, development, support, and preservation of college archives and special collections within the 58 community colleges and to serve as a statewide voice on behalf of North Carolina community college history.

We accomplish this mission through networking and exchange of information among members throughout the state, providing professional development opportunities, advocating for institutional archives on a local and state level, promoting the preservation of North Carolina community college history, and fostering an awareness and appreciation for the importance, significance, and value of college archives collections.

Why is preserving this history so important? 

Sadly, many do not realize how important it is to understand the identity of their institutions, to understand why certain decisions were made, and to understand why and how certain events occurred in their institution’s past. 

This knowledge helps current college administrators, faculty, and staff to understand and navigate the culture of their institution and either build upon past successes or avoid past mistakes. Without this knowledge, there is no way for a college to know itself, its mission and purpose in the community, nor its unique role in the state. Understanding a college’s past leads to more informed and more intelligent decision-making in the present and assists in planning for the future.  

Preserving a college’s history is also important for honoring college founders, retirees, and alumni. It can help start or grow an alumni association or reconnect retirees or other supporters back to a college. Retirees and alumni can both be huge supporters of a college, but if they feel that materials and information that reflect them and the role that they played in the story of the college have been destroyed, then it makes them feel as if a college does not value their legacy or place in the story of the college. College archival material is also extremely helpful when a college celebrates an anniversary or holds a Founder’s Day event to be able to know important dates, people, and events in the college’s history.  

As community college employees, we must also remember who we are and where we are. We are our community’s college and represent and serve those who live in our community. We serve as a beacon of service, selflessness, hope, and opportunity. The history of each of our 58 community colleges is inextricably linked to the history of our counties and service areas, and simultaneously documents the history and culture of our communities through our students, our community leaders, and the significant events in our local community’s history. This becomes an excellent source of local history and genealogical research. Without our college archives collections, our community loses its history as well. We owe it to those in our communities who we serve to preserve their stories. 

Our association has important work to do in saving the history of our 58 community colleges, but this is a team effort. We need all the help and support that we can get and welcome anyone who has an interest in the history of their own college, our community college system, or North Carolina history to become a member and help us in our efforts. There is no membership fee. Go here for more information on the association and how to join.

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.