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UNC preserves Southern treasures 

The staff at UNC's Wilson Library will soon offer yet another resource for Southern history buffs to delve into. The university has won nearly $150,000 in grants to preserve 2,350 hours of interviews and performances by a variety of Southern music giants including Ralph Stanley (he of "O Death" fame), Doc Watson and Elizabeth Cotton.

"These recordings are part of the tremendous collections that make UNC one of the premier repositories for the study of Southern traditional music," says Steve Weiss, head of UNC's Southern Folklife Collection, the university's repository for Southern music and popular culture.

Students, researchers and the otherwise idle or curious will all have free access to the recordings, thanks to a $138,275 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The library has also received $6,000 from the National Film Preservation Foundation to preserve three 16-mm black and white amateur films shot by the late naturalist Harry Lee Harllee, at and around his family's homestead in Florence, S.C.

Formerly in the care of Alex Quattlebaum Jr. and his family—descendants of Harllee—the films provide what Stephanie Stewart, moving image archivist in Wilson Library, calls an "exclusive window" into a waning culture and its customs.

"These three films are crucial to the understanding of the plantation lifestyle and how it lingered on long after the end of the Civil War," Stewart says.

Harllee, a famed ornithologist and taxidermist, shot the films to document local social gatherings with neighboring families, as well as the Harllee family's hunting and fishing excursions into Florida and North Carolina.

Some of the footage captures scenes from neighboring farms, where former slaves and their descendants work to scratch out a living on what was, prior to Reconstruction, their former owner's lands.

According to Stewart, Harllee took what was at the time the rare step of identifying people and places in his films, making them especially valuable to genealogists, whose attempts to trace the lineage of former slaves is often stymied by a lack of proper documents.

"Harlee was an extensive editor," Stewart says. "For people who are trying to trace their family's lineage back into the pre-Depression South, these films can be a great resource."

But before the films can be made available to the public, they must first be sent to a specialty film laboratory where the deteriorated negatives can be restored and reproduced onto modern film stock.

Unfortunately for technophiles, the university does not plan to digitize the film and make it available online, at least not immediately. However, viewing copies will be made available at UNC's Wilson Library when the preservation process is completed in August 2009.

  • Historians, genealogists and the curious will have access to rare music and film footage

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