The Paper Chase

The University's collection of personal papers ranges from the letters of a Civil War soldier to the archives of alumnus and U.S. Senator Sam Nunn

By John D. Thomas

On a preternaturally sweltering day in July 1993, Emory manuscripts librarian Steve Enniss drove a rented U-Haul truck from Atlanta to Columbia, South Carolina. There he spent several hours loading more than fifty large boxes into the truck to bring back to Emory. When he was through with the job, he says, he felt like a "wet dish rag."

But Enniss' work had barely even begun. Stored inside those boxes were the personal papers of Southern poet and novelist James Dickey, which the University had acquired through a London dealer. Once back in the climate-controlled confines of the Woodruff Library's Special Collections department, Enniss and his graduate student assistant began the painstaking process of cataloging the contents of those boxes.

"We need to put an inventory in researchers' hands so they can request specific material," Enniss says of his work in cataloging the collection. "While [the Dickey collection] arrived in fifty-four large record center cartons, it's been refoldered in acid-free folders and reboxed. Because of the [delicate] nature of the material, we can't have researchers retrieving items from the closed stacks themselves. They have to be able to request specific materials based on an inventory. Wherever possible we've preserved the existing organization of those papers, but where we came to boxes of material that apparently had no order, we had to provide some kind of order and description."

The University owns some eight-hundred collections of personal papers and organizational archives. They range in size from a single folder--the letters of a Civil War soldier--to hundreds of boxes--for example, the archive of U.S. Senator and Emory alumnus Sam Nunn.

According to Linda Matthews, head of Special Collections, the primary reason for collecting personal papers lies in the difference between primary and secondary resources. "For a university that gives Ph.D. degrees in history and other areas of the arts and sciences, manuscripts and archival materials can be one of the most important types of resources for graduate and postgraduate research. . . ," she says. "Graduate students writing dissertations, faculty writing books, researchers from all over working on projects have to have the primary resources. . . .

"When you're writing about a historical figure, you can't rely on printed sources because they're often not accurate. You have to go back to the person's thoughts and actions as they were unfolding. And there's nothing like going back to the actual correspondence of, say, . . . [Atlanta newspaper editor] Ralph McGill during the desegregation crisis and reading the actual letters that he was writing and the letters he was receiving to understand what was going on in his life, what he was thinking, what he was telling other people, and what he was hearing."

Correspondence plays a key role in providing depth within many of the collections, and Enniss says the Dickey papers are no exception. "The correspondence is one of the most important parts of the Dickey collection because of the people he corresponded with and because Dickey often preserved carbons of his own letters to these people," says Enniss. "We not only have the letter that Dickey received from, say, Robert Penn Warren, but in many cases we have the letter that Dickey wrote to Warren. We have both ends of the correspondence, sometimes with poems enclosed with the letters. So you can get a glimpse in these papers of creative relationships between writers."

Which is not to say that everything in someone's collected papers will actually be on paper. Enniss says that other than manuscripts, notebooks, and published materials, the Dickey collection contains audio cassettes on which the writer had recorded journal entries and even the airplane navigational instruments he had used in World War II. However, the most peculiar item in the collection is somewhat macabre. "There's a fan who writes Dickey in the 1960s and sends him the claw of a meat-eating bird," says Enniss. "He also enclosed a poem that he had written about the claw. Being such a public figure, Dickey attracted a great deal of interest from would-be poets."

Even though the Special Collections department was not founded until 1940, the University has been acquiring manuscripts since about 1911. Matthews says the first three collections the University acquired are still three of the most heavily researched. "The first collection came when Bishop Warren Candler purchased the Wesley collection," she says. "This was a collection of the papers of Methodist Church founder John Wesley and the Wesley family. . . . It was stored for a period of time in a downtown Atlanta church until the Emory University campus was built in the late teens and it was then moved out here. . . . After that, the next big collection was the Joel Chandler Harris papers . . . followed by a large collection, acquired in the thirties, of Civil War manuscripts, purchased from a collector in Savannah who had . . . collected soldiers' letters and diaries as well as published material. So even back in those very early days when the University didn't have all that much money, it made some really important purchases of manuscripts and rare books that still are used by researchers."

The University acquires collections of personal papers either through gifts or by purchase. Most of the papers that are donated relate to historical personages whose signature or effects may have no substantial market value. When it comes to collections of more well-known figures, particularly literary figures--James Dickey, for example--the papers themselves may be the writer's primary wealth. "Literary manuscripts are the collections that most likely have a monetary value, because they have an autograph value and there is a market value for them," says Matthews. "Whereas most of the historical collections we receive probably don't have that much of a market value . . . , [t]he literary collections tend to be the writers' capital. A writer's life's work is tied up in those letters and manuscripts."


James Dickey

(b.1923)--American poet and novelist

Collection consists of more than one hundred boxes containing some fifty thousand pieces of material, including:


William Butler Yeats

(1865-1939)--Irish poet, playwright, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923

Collection consists of four boxes, 268 pieces of material, including:


Frances Freeborn Pauley

(b.1905)--Human and civil rights activist and founder of the Georgia Poverty Rights Organization

Collection consists of some eighty boxes, including:

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