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Archives and the Archival Exercise

An archive is a group of documents—most often primary or original sources—which constitute a historical record of a person, organization or event. Archives are most often a combination of paper and photographs but film, video, oral histories and microform formats are also commonplace. Increasingly, documents that originate in a digital format are being archived, too.

For this archival exercise, you will use primarily the papers of Herndon J. Evans. As the editor of the Pineville Sun (Bell County, Kentucky) and local correspondent for the Associated Press in the early 1930s, Evans reported on a period of unrest in the eastern Kentucky coal fields. He followed events in Bell and Harlan counties, particularly strikes and attempts by various groups, such as the Communist Party and its National Miners Union (NMU), and the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) to organize the miners and investigate conditions in the coalfields. Evans collected handbills, leaflets, pamphlets, clippings and other material related to the strikes. His collection also contains the numerous press releases he wrote and distributed nationally, his news articles written about the labor strife, and his correspondence with readers from across the country, most of whom were sympathetic to his viewpoint .

The archival materials selected and provided for this exercise are only a portion of those in the Herndon J. Evans Collection. Many documents in the Evans archive have not been digitized. But like most archival collections, this one has an inventory that describes its entire contents. The inventory also serves as a finding aid so you can locate certain materials by box and folder number and provide a citation when using the documents in a scholarly project. Visit Explore UK.

A few primary sources used in this exercise, while relevant to the strike, were not originally part of the Herndon Evans papers. Included are, for example, Florence Reece’s song “Which Side Are you On,” Mimi Pickering and Appalshop’s documentary film Dreadful Memories and Harlan Miners Speak, a 1932 published compilation of interviews with and testimony from people involved in the strike.

This exercise has been created so that you can experience and navigate multiple perspectives about the strike. Archival materials have been divided into sections representing the Local Elite, Miners, National Media, National Miners Union and Other Radical Groups, and New York Writers. You will be able to access and analyze documents that reveal how these groups participated in the strike, what positions they took, and which solutions they advocated. Within these categories competing and conflicting narratives emerge. For example some miners supported the National Miners Union, some did not, and others simply wanted relief, from wherever it might come, in the form of food and work. To put it another way, people were participating in a shared story but not one they necessarily agreed upon. This is the work of a scholar: to take raw materials and synthesize them into interpretations that acknowledge the truth of perspective, but allow for the construction of a larger, more encompassing narrative.

Dwight Billings, Professor of Sociology and Appalachian Studies, and Kate Black, Curator of the Appalachian Collection, discuss how and why Herndon Evans collected this significant group of historical documents about the strike and how the library came to possess them. They also discuss how “reading” historical documents in an archival collection can open a window to historical events.

To continue with the exercise use the menu at the above right to explore the multiple perspectives that are bound together in this historical event.