The brittle pages of an old book hold more than words – they are a tangible link to the past, a chance to imagine the hands that turned them decades or even centuries before.
Bob Anthony has spent more than 40 years preserving these connections to the past, including 20 years overseeing millions of books, pictures, maps and other items as curator of the North Carolina Collection based at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Raised in Halifax County, Anthony says his job is that of a “professional North Carolinian,” charged with collecting all manner of materials related to the state’s history and people. He’s only the fourth curator of the collection, which is considered the nation’s largest devoted to a single state.
In recent years, he’s expanded his efforts toward a different kind of connection – making these and other materials more widely available to historians and others across the world as head of the N.C. Digital Heritage Center.
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A grant-funded initiative, the center works with libraries and other local groups across the state to digitize their holdings, allowing items in even the state’s most remote areas to be accessible online.
The initiative celebrated a milestone last week – reaching 200 partners statewide. So far, the effort has scanned about 2.8 million items, including yearbooks, newspapers, scrapbooks, photos and more – and has racked up even more page views.
Anthony is also widely involved in historical and literary activities beyond his work. He has served as president of the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association, and helped organize and write a book about the N. C. Writers Conference, which has met every July for more than 50 years.
“He’s not just been there running that collection,” says Willis Whichard, a former legislator, state Supreme Court justice, and author of a biography on former Gov. James Iredell. “He’s really integrated himself into the historical community of the state.”
Whichard is currently writing a book on David Swain, who started collecting the materials that would form the basis of the North Carolina Collection in 1844; it would formally become a collection in 1901. Whichard says the current efforts to digitize much of the collection and other historical documents is an important turning point in its long history.
“It’s an extremely valuable collection,” he says. “And the work [Anthony] has done to make it available is a tremendous service.”
A 40-year relationship
Anthony grew up in Hobgood, a tiny town in rural Halifax County that had no library of its own, though he remembers enjoying the visits of the area’s bookmobile.
Later, at Wake Forest University, he would study in the silence of the university library. A history major, he thought he would enjoy working with historical documents, so he went on to study library science at UNC-CH.
It was there that he had his first experience with the North Carolina Collection, an experience that has continued in some capacity or another in all but two of the past 40 years.
One of his first jobs out of school was working for the state archives office and the governor’s office as an archivist – a tedious job where he collected jars full of the staples he removed from official documents.
His only stint away from the collection was during two years he spent in Charlotte, where he headed the public library’s Carolina Room.
Anthony returned to work at the collection, which is housed at the Wilson Library, in the 1980s, working as a reference associate and collections development librarian before becoming curator in 1994.
The collection has grown considerably since then, including the expansion of its photo archives from 300,000 to more than four million through the acquisition of several large collections.
It now has about 19 million documents and artifacts in total, including published works as well as letters, diaries and other items all related in some way to North Carolina.
The collection has a whole section devoted to novels set in the state and rare books that include a family Bible from the 1600s that is believed to be the first book brought into the state. It also is home to the Thomas Wolfe Collection, which includes the Asheville author’s correspondence.
Working with partners
When the state received a grant to start the N.C. Digital Heritage Center in 2008, Anthony was tapped to oversee the effort.
Working as consultants, the center’s staff helps museums, history centers and others decide which of their documents should be digitized first – usually the most popular, unique or fragile items. They then bring the items to Chapel Hill for scanning and indexing using large-scale scanners.
Lisa Gregory, interim director of the center, says one point where North Carolina’s effort differs from that of other states is that they work with the small groups to make these decisions, rather than asking only for specific types of content.
“We rely on our partners to tell us what they want to share,” she says. “They have the knowledge, and they know their users. And as a result we end up with some unusual items.”
Anthony says reaching 200 partners is a significant milestone.
“It’s really a testament to the collaborative nature of cultural heritage in North Carolina,” he says. “Everyone is working together.”
One example would be a series of 150 scrapbooks meticulously created by a Granville County man on topics such as the county’s doctors and transportation system.
Through another grant, the center maintains a portal that makes all of the state’s online library holdings, including those maintained by larger cities and others who are not partners with the center, available online.
A little over half of those who access the site are in state – meaning many people who might not otherwise visit a small library are seeing these documents. But Anthony notes that the web traffic has also had a way bringing more visitors in to see his and other collections.
“You can see a lot more than you ever could online,” he says, “But there are people who want to see that original version.”
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Robert G. Anthony, Jr.
Born: November 1952, Hobgood
Residence: Chapel Hill
Career: Curator, North Carolina Collection, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill
Awards: Citation of Merit, Thomas Wolfe Society, 2016; honored by N.C. Writers Conference, 2014; Distinguished Alumni Award, School of Library and Information Science, UNC-CH, 1997
Publications: Co-author, “Fifty Splendid Summers,” a history of the North Carolina Writers Conference; contributor,” Encyclopedia of North Carolina and Southern Writers: A Biographical Dictionary.”
Education: B.A. History, Wake Forest University; M.S. Library Science, UNC-CH
Collection favorite: An original printing of a book of poems written by a slave named George Moses Horton, who would come to Chapel Hill to sell produce. Anthony says Horton created a side business selling his poems, often to college boys who would give them to their girlfriends. Supporters helped him publish his work in hopes he could use the proceeds to buy his freedom, but he wasn’t freed until after the Civil War.