An Emory & Henry Discovery
An Interview with Robert Vejnar
As last autumn's press re-lease stated, Emory & Henry College library officials have discovered a set of Civil War era newspapers that historians and appraisers have called rare and valuable.
The newspapers consist of 142 issues of the Abingdon Virginian, which had been set aside in an acid-free box in E&H's Kelly Library. They date from October 3, 1862 to December 9, 1864, when it ceased publication due to lack of paper. The dates place the papers within the timeframe of the Civil War, 1861-1865. Printing of the weekly newspaper, which still operates, resumed in December 1865.
"For historians, this is a very important discovery," asserted Russell L. Martin III, a curator of newspapers for the American Antiquarian Society. "Long runs of newspapers from that era in the region from Winchester, Virginia, to Bristol, Virginia, are very rare."
E&H's archivist Robert Vejnar discovered the newspapers in August of last year and began a process to have them appraised and secured. Prior to his discovery, only nine issues of the Abingdon Virginian were known to exist. Though fragile, the newspapers are in good condition.
What follows is a series of questions Mr. Vejnar kindly agreed to answer regarding this exciting find.
VL: Why are these papers important?
RV: As far as we know, there's no other consistent record of what went on here in Abingdon and the surrounding community from October 1862 to July 1864.
VL: What is special about what they contain?
RV: The local news is the most special. Remember that I haven't had a chance to really examine them myself. I will do so early this summer in preparation for a talk I have to give during the Highlands Festival here in August. Some of the stories I've found have already been mentioned in a Richmond Times-Dispatch article: the list of deserters, rumors of pending Yankee attacks, and the demise of Braxton Bragg's army in Kentucky. I'm certain more interesting things will surface once we go through them thoroughly.
VL: How will this find impact the field of Civil War history?
RV: I will let others speak to this question. I already have a list of six or seven scholars (plus countless amateur genealogists and historians) who want to look at them, so I guess the newspapers will be helpful in some way. The day the story hit the Associated Press wire I had a Ph.D. student from Mississippi State University call to inquire when the microfilm would be ready. He told me that if the film were ready before the autumn of 2001, he would like to come to Emory to do research on the papers. It seems he's attending a conference later in 2001 and would change his paper topic as a result of getting access to the newspapers.
The Draughon Professor of Southern History at Auburn University in Alabama, Dr. Kenneth W. Noe, had this to say: "This is truly a major find that promises to advance historical studies of Southwest Virginia." I think that is the key point. These newspapers will shed light on the effect the war had on this region.
Russell L. Martin III, curator of newspapers for the American Antiquarian Society, had this to say: "As you know, these issues are exceedingly rare. Only a handful of Civil War issues are known to have survived for this title. Duke University holds four issues from 1862 and one from 1864. Your run of 142 issues is therefore a tremendous leap forward. In a broader context, long runs of 19th-century Virginia newspapers printed beyond the Blue Ridge are always hard to find. So, for regional history as well as Civil War history, this file is one of the most exciting discoveries I've heard about in years." Dr. Martin also said that our collection of the Abingdon Virginian "is of national significance ."
VL: How rare/unique are they (do other libraries have them too-which ones)?
RV: As stated above, Duke University holds five issues from the Civil War period. A further search on OCLC indicates that the Library of Congress holds three issues from that period. The current editor of the Abingdon Virginian indicates that they have at least one issue (and maybe a few more, but he won't say) from the War. Thus, as far as we know, only nine Civil War issues of the Abingdon Virginian exist.
VL: How did they get "lost" or to what degree were they lost?
RV: I guess I would say that they got lost when no one realized their importance and simply placed them in a box on a rack behind the circulation desk where newspapers from last week, last month, and last year are kept. Fortunately, and I say that because otherwise they might have gotten stolen, the newspapers were not cataloged. Of course, in the late 19th century, nothing was terribly special about having Civil War newspapers in the library, so no one would have paid that much attention to them.
VL: How were they discovered?
RV: They were discovered when I went by the newspaper racks one day and began looking through the boxes-I was rather inquisitive that day. _BI opened the box that contained the papers, and I guess one could say that I was stunned. I couldn't believe that I was looking at Civil War era newspapers! Needless to say, I moved them to Special Collections.
VL: How long did it take for you to realize that you'd found something valuable?
RV: I realized their importance when I opened the box, although I was really shocked to see the high appraisal amount-I really didn't know newspapers could be so valuable. That's when I did some investigating and discovered just how rare some Southern Civil War imprints are.
VL: What steps have been taken to make them accessible to the public?
RV: I've worked with the Library of Virginia to get them microfilmed. I now have several microfilm copies for use here, and they have several for use in Richmond. They also will send their copies out on interlibrary loan. As soon as I get final approval, we're thinking of putting them onto CD-ROMs, too.
VL: What are the preservation issues surrounding these newspapers?
RV: There's not too much to worry about now. The newspapers are in an acid-free box in a very secure room, along with a machine that helps eliminate mold. Since the paper itself is mostly rag content, they're in very good shape, and should be around for a couple of hundred years if not longer. They are now brought out only on special occasions. E&H and the LVA have several microfilm copies for regular use, and a silver master is in the vault at the LVA. The LVA's conservation lab had to do a minimal amount of preservation work on them: a few pages were slightly torn, and on a few the bottom on the paper had curled somewhat.
VL: Has anyone come to look at them/what interest have they generated?
RV: As yet no one has come to examine them, although several will undoubtedly travel to Emory this summer to research them. For security reasons I did not permit anyone to look through them until I had them microfilmed. The announcement of the find came out on 13 September 2000 in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. I had lots of calls for about three weeks after that, but I told all concerned that the originals would not be available for research. However, anyone could come here to use the microfilm once it was ready.
The American Antiquarian Society was quite interested in doing the filming, as was the Library of Virginia. I thought it best to keep the newspapers in Virginia for the filming, and decided to send them to the LVA. However it took until early December before the negotiations were settled, and I actually delivered them to the LVA on 13 December. With a collection this valuable and rare, I could not in good conscience let just any old microfilm company do the work. It had to be done by an institution with excellent security and a real desire to see the job done correctly-this is why it came down to choosing between the LVA and the American Antiquarian Society.
Although the papers are in excellent shape, the LVA still had to do a small bit of conservation work on them before they went to its lab. The filming was completed by sometime in February, but the reels of film went through a quality control check before I could get them. The first filming did not pass the control check, so the papers were filmed a second time. The second filming passed the check. It took until April 2001 before the second filming and quality control check were completed, and I traveled to Richmond to pick up the newspapers and microfilm on 24 April.
Overall, we are quite pleased with the final product, the Library of Virginia and its microfilm lab, and especially Errol Somay (the director of the Virginia Newspaper Project) really did a fantastic job. Emory & Henry couldn't be more pleased. By the way, the LVA will keep a master copy of the film in its vault. The LVA will also have several user copies of the microfilm.
The regional interest has been great. Many amateur historians and genealogists have expressed an interest in examining them, as have several colleges and universities in the area.
By the way, the news regarding the find appeared in the following newspapers: Richmond Times-Dispatch, Roanoke Times, Bristol Herald Courier, Daily Press, Washington Times, Winston-Salem Journal, Fairfax Journal, and the Indianapolis Star. The story also went out on the Associated Press newswire, but I haven't been able to determine how many newspapers across the country picked up the story. It evidently got picked up by at least one newspaper in California and one in Mississippi, because I subsequently received calls from both places.
VL: What advice would you give other archivists who locate treasures that may be hidden in their archives, on how to handle them and how to handle the publicity?
RV: First of all, make certain you have informed your senior administrators what is about to happen, and make sure you have their approval first. They, the president and dean in my case, are after all totally responsible for the institution, and they should be kept informed if the institution is about to make headlines. In my case, we, the library director and I, had a meeting with the president and dean several days before the press release went out. We informed them of what we had. I made sure to show them the appraisal amount-it doesn't hurt to have large dollar signs in there as attention grabbers-and the potential for publicity for both the college and the archives. We asked for their approval to go ahead with the press release, and they gave it.
Next, and before the press release goes out, make certain your newly found treasure is in a secure room with limited access. I used this event to draw attention to the need for greater security for our special collections area. After the administrators saw the appraisal amount, there was no problem getting all the locks changed and the number of keys to the room limited.
Be extremely careful when showing off the treasures to the press. I made certain that the papers were in another secure room and ready for the press when they arrived. I did this as an added security measure because I didn't want anyone outside the organization to see exactly where the papers were kept.
As far as dealing with the publicity, it all goes away after about three weeks. However, in those three weeks, all sorts of people come out of the woodwork. Some are academics, some are folks wanting to know if you can appraise their copy of the Declaration of Independence (this really did happen to me), and others just want to know if you by chance saw a reference in the newspapers to their great-great grandfather who fought at the battle of ________ (you can fill in the blank) and was in Abingdon sometime during the War of Northern Aggression. I guess the key is to follow the golden rule and "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." I tried to answer their questions as best I could, but if I didn't know the answer I simply told them that "I'm sorry, but I don't know." And of course, do all of the interviews or speaking engagements you possibly can. I did a couple of local news broadcasts, a couple of print interviews, and I gave a talk to a local civic group. In August I'll give a presentation at the Highlands Festival here. In essence, enjoy it while you can because in all probability you will never be this famous again.
VL: What interest should they generate?
RV: Anyone interested in regional or social history during the Civil War years should certainly be interested in them. I would also think that students/scholars interested in the field of journalism or journalism history would be interested, too. When one contemplates all that was going on in the nation and region at that time, it's amazing to me that the editors of the Abingdon Virginian were able to stay focused and keep the paper coming out on a weekly basis. I don't know of too many editors today that have to worry about paper shortages, severed lines of communication, or the threat of invading troops!
VL: What else do you have hidden?
RV: As I told a reporter who asked the same question, "absolutely nothing! I've found everything here there is to find!" As one can imagine, the last thing this small college, tucked away as it is in the foothills of Southwest Virginia, needs is to have treasure hunters lurking through our buildings. No, I've found everything. There's nothing more to find (I think you see what I'm trying to avoid taking place here).
VL: What has been the reaction of the community?
RV: Well, from what I can tell, the community is quite excited. Many want to get at the microfilm a.s.a.p. I'm now known by some in Abingdon as "that man that found those newspapers." Several have wanted to purchase microfilm copies, and others can't wait until the CD-ROMs are out.
VL: What have you learned from this experience?
RV: I've learned that publicity is the best thing an archivist could hope for-outside of a check for $1 million. The administration, alumni, and faculty all know about the archives now. In fact several people are so interested that they want to know how they can help (monetarily) improve the archives.
Mr. Vejnar concluded his remarks with the following acknowledgments.
RV: Let me say again how instrumental the Library of Virginia was in all of this. I couldn't have done this without their help. I want especially to thank Errol Somay and his Virginia Newspaper Project staff, Richard Harrington and his microfilm staff, and Dr. Edward D. C. Campbell, Jr., who is the Director of Collection Management Services at the LVA. The Commonwealth of Virginia, especially the legislature and governor, should count themselves fortunate that such talented and industrious people are working so hard to help preserve the state's history. All of the above named individuals, along with their respective departments, deserve a big fat raise and a pat on the back. They also need to hear "job well done."