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There’s only one place in the world where you can leaf through Asheville GreenWorks’ 50-year history, listen to a speech Martin Luther King Jr. delivered in Montreat in August 1965 and view a 1764 map of Cherokee land by English cartographer Thomas Kitchin: Buncombe County Special Collections, tucked away on the lower level of downtown Asheville’s Pack Memorial Library.

BCSC has collected, curated and cared for items related to the history of Asheville, Buncombe County and Western North Carolina since 1935, 16 years after Asheville’s first public library opened in 1919. The collection is currently managed by WNC native Katherine Cutshall. She fell in love with the archives, she says, while researching her master’s thesis on the history of local tourism at UNC Asheville.

“Things that [a university library such as] Duke would never collect, like [local] T-shirts and bumper stickers, I’m like, ‘Yes, bring it on,’” Cutshall says of the library’s collection. “It’s nostalgia. That’s what makes our community feel like a community.”

Since becoming BCSC’s manager in March 2020, Cutshall has prioritized diversifying its holdings to better reflect everyone who has lived in and shaped the region. At the heart of this effort is the Black Asheville History Project, which aims to ensure that at least 25% of the collections’ catalog centers on the local African American experience.

However, Cutshall argues, chronic understaffing and a lack of funds have jeopardized both that goal and the condition of the collection’s current holdings. Although a dedicated fund to maintain BCSC has existed since 1987, she continues, legal issues have prevented her from accessing it.

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“The library’s getting shortchanged here,” says Philip Blocklyn, a member of the Friends of the Buncombe County Special Collections board of directors.

A complicated history

The public library did not have a special collections section until local attorney and historian F.A. Sondley bequeathed his 45,000-volume personal library, as well as thousands of artifacts — rocks and gems, birds’ eggs and nests, paintings and even firearms — to the city upon his death in 1931. That trove constitutes the core of the modern-day BCSC.

According to a 48-page report on the history of the Sondley collection compiled by Blocklyn, Sondley’s bequest placed stifling legal stipulations on the city. The collection could not be broken up and needed its own space and staff separate from the rest of the library. Most significantly, Sondley insisted that only “well conducted white people” be allowed to access the materials.