Digitized history opens windows to the past


More than a century before Western Carolina commencements came to be associated with large crowds and hundreds of students who have earned diplomas, a small group of young people dressed formally in long dresses and suits with vests sat next to each other on the lawn on a sunny day to have a group photograph made. The names of the 17 boys and six girls, the 1898 graduates of Western Carolina University’s predecessor, Cullowhee High School, were written on the border of the photograph – Stillwell, Hooper, Brown, Parker, Buchanan and others – last names still prevalent in Jackson County today.

The photograph of those early alumni, along with many more historic images from WCU’s past, are now available online as part of Hunter Library’s digital collections. The collection, “Western Carolina University: Making Memories since 1889,” offers an opportunity to see the campus as it was long ago and includes photographs of old buildings and a campus farm no longer in existence as well as prominent people, including founder Robert L. Madison, who played key roles in the school’s early history. Many of the photographs, and a selection of scenic campus postcards, were previously available only by visiting Special Collections at the library.

The “Making Memories” website gives an overview of the collection, a browse feature that allows users to view the entire collection and a guided search feature to help identify images by topic. The photographs in the collection are the first of hundreds of images the library will work to digitize.

“As information becomes increasingly available in digital forms and people are turning to the Internet for their information, there is a large push by libraries to make materials available digitally,” said Liz Skene, WCU’s digital initiatives librarian. “Our patrons are not always aware of the existence of some of our collections, especially the rare and fragile materials in Special Collections, and we are thrilled to make them available to a wider audience.”

Another aspect of the collection, “WCU Yearbooks,” features 73 of the annual campus publications and includes 15,000 pages of photographs. The collection begins with the 1918 yearbook, the Oogoocoo, and concludes with the 2005 edition of The Catamount, the last yearbook published at WCU.

In addition to “Making Memories” and yearbook online compilations, Hunter Library’s digital collections include “Stories of Mountain Folk.” This collection of oral histories features short interviews with several people familiar with WCU’s history, including Sara Sutton Madison ’54 MAEd ’60, the granddaughter-in-law of Robert L. Madison and granddaughter of one of the institution’s first students in 1889; Stedman Mitchell, the retired longtime director of WCU dining services, and others. The series is produced by Catch the Spirit of Appalachia Inc.

To browse the “Making Memories,” “WCU Yearbooks” and “Stories of Mountain Folk” sites, visit