My name is Alanna Natanson, and I am excited to be the 2018-2019 Preserve WV AmeriCorps member serving at the West Virginia and Regional History Center at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia. While engaging with a collection related to historic structures in the Mountain State, I hope to understand how the natural environment and built landscape affected the lives of people in West Virginia across the 19th and 20th centuries. I know those histories still influence the state I can’t wait to explore today.
From the age of five, all my family road trips from our home in the suburbs of Washington D.C. involved visits to historical landmarks and museums. While we worked our way across centuries and up and down the East Coast, I developed a deep passion for learning about U.S. history, both its proudest moments and its most terrible. After an internship in high school with Historic Takoma Inc. researching hometown heroes of
World War II through yearbooks and census records, I realized the behind-the-scenes stories of telling history fascinated me even more than the history itself. I love knowing how archives make materials accessible to historians, and how the limits of collections at historical institutions ultimately shape the arguments a researcher can create. By the end of my first year of college, I knew I wanted to pursue a career making historical collections available to researchers.
I’ve been lucky enough to explore my interest in archives while processing collections in all kinds of research institutions: the Stetten Museum of Medical Research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, the Forsyth County Public Library’s North Carolina Room in Winston Salem, North Carolina, the Salem College Library and Archives also in Winston Salem, and the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort, Kentucky. Now, I’m excited to apply all my experiences while processing the Emory Kemp Collection at the West Virginia and Regional History Center.
Emory Kemp founded the Institute for the History of Technology and Industrial Archaeology at West Virginia University while also serving as a faculty member in the School of Engineering and College of Arts and Science. His collection not only documents his own life, but also records key information about many of West Virginia and Appalachia’s oldest bridges, canals, dams and man-made waterways. After we make his collection available to the public, scholars will have the opportunity to understand the way past West Virginians honed the natural terrain to build transportation and industry in the state.
For me, the project is going to be a wonderful way to learn about West Virginia (a trip to Harper’s Ferry made up the whole of my West Virginia experience prior to Preserve WV AmeriCorps). Not only do I look forward to scouring through photographs and blueprints of West Virginia’s structures; I also want to pay attention to how these industrial remnants tell stories about the labor, politics and daily life of generations of West Virginians. Buildings are the physical manifestations of people, and this collection houses the stories of a wide range of humans embedded among the state’s bricks and steel. Digging up those stories is going to bring out characters who show sides of West Virginia the world may not yet know.
I chose to serve with Preserve WV AmeriCorps because I want to use my love of behind-the-scenes history to feature stories that don’t usually appear in historical scholarship. This year, I also want to learn to shape a high-quality historical picture of West Virginia while leaving my biases out of the collection as much as possible. Preserve WV AmeriCorps will help me grow, just as I hope that I can facilitate a small part of the history of the preservation movement in West Virginia.
Preserve WV Stories