Mobilizing Citizen Archivists: North Carolina Documents the Great War

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Kathelene McCarty Smith, Assistant Professor and Instruction and Outreach Archivist (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:

Abstract: Upon entering the Great War in April 1917, the United States found itself ill-equipped to fight an overseas conflict and equally unprepared to systematically document it as a historical phenomenon.1 In contrast to many European nations, the United States government lacked an official national archive; and instead relied heavily on federal agencies and individual branches of the military to collect, preserve, and store records.2 At the state level, executive and legislativedepartments were responsible for maintaining their own material. However, various factors including administrative policies and resource allocation levels caused states’ documentation strategies to vary widely.3 Nevertheless, the urge to document was strong. Reacting to the inadequate documentation of North Carolina’s contributions to the American Revolution and the Civil War, state officials pledged to record the state’s military service and home-front mobilization. Within weeks of President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war, North Carolina’s Historical Commission expanded the scope of its activities from managing the state’s official war records to actively collecting unofficial documents related to home-front mobilization.4 This Commission appealed directly to state agencies, civic and social organizations, businesses, academic institutions, and community groups to gather “every scrap of material” related to the Great War.5 After the Armistice in 1918, the North Carolina state legislature formalized this documentation effort by authorizing and funding the position of “Collector of War Records.” With little money to hire the necessary professional staff, the state had to rely on a network of citizen volunteers to fulfill the position’s goals and broaden the reach of the project. Using predetermined categories of selection, these civic-minded historians functioned as archivists at the county level.6 To ensure effective local collection, the commission sought citizen representatives for each of the state’s one hundred counties. This study examines three key issues related to the documentation of the Great War in North Carolina: first, the underlying reasons the state committed to collecting war records; second, the scope and scale of the collecting project; and third, how the empowerment of citizen archivists to collect war-related material in their respective communities contributed to a shared historical narrative.

Additional Information

Journal for the Society of North Carolina Archivists, 17, 35-56
Language: English
Date: 2020
Great War, World War I, North Carolina, Archives, War Records

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