The Buncombe County Special Collections Library (formerly the North Carolina Room) is a medium-sized archival facility located on the lower level of Pack Memorial Library in Downtown Asheville. Buncombe County Special Collections specializes in the social, cultural, and natural history of Asheville, Buncombe County, and Western North Carolina.
The personal library of Foster Alexander Sondley forms the nucleus of Buncombe County’s special collections. The Sondley gift is an expansive collection of books, papers, and artifacts. A prominent local attorney and historian, Sondley bequeathed this large personal library, including all of the “brick-a-brac” therein to the City of Asheville upon his death in 1931. Over time, caring for the Sondley collection became a financial burden and beyond the expertise of local library staff. Discussions began about selling portions of the collection as early as the 1950s.
In 1987, Judge C. Walter Allen granted the Board of Trustees of the Asheville-Buncombe Library system permission to proceed with the sale of a large portion of the Sondley Library. The sale included material that was “no longer to the benefit to the citizens of Buncombe County the patrons of the Asheville-Buncombe Library System.” The material was sold to Chapel Hill Rare Books for $375,000. Those funds went to establish a trust that can be utilized for the care and maintenance of the collection.
Buncombe County Special Collections the way we know it today began in the 1990s after the Sondley sale. In 1990, using a portion of the funds from the sale, the library hired a special collections consultant to evaluate the library’s materials and storage facilities. The study resulted in a 5-year plan to ensure the library’s rare and unique materials would be preserved. This plan brought on new staff, and the eventual severance of the “North Carolina Collection” from the general reference department.
In 2009, during a major renovation of Pack Memorial Library, what was then called the North Carolina Collection was relocated from a corner of the reference department, to its own space on the lower level of the library. The renovation allowed for better environmental conditions for the historic materials housed in the archive. Since then, the “North Carolina Room” has transformed into “Buncombe County Special Collections.” During the height of the pandemic, Special Collections staff in partnership with local artists reinvented the space and made changes to the Collection Development Plan that center community, equity, and diversity in our archives and reference materials.
Buncombe County Special Collections is home to thousands of unique historical documents including maps, photographs, diaries, letters, books, and other archival material. The collection is especially rich in photographs of Downtown Asheville and other commercial, social, and residential districts, as well as tourist attractions like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Many of the photos in the collection are attributed to important photographers including Thomas H. Lindsey, George Masa, and Andrea Clark.
Some of the material is housed in open stacks and are available without restriction for use within the BCSC reading room. Other collections, including, but not limited to, rare and antique books, maps, photographs, artifacts, artworks, and other material may be held in secured storage in light of their fragility, format, scarcity, or monetary value being among the considerations. Access to the library’s Special Collections will be as open as possible given the need to preserve the materials.