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November 2009: Volunteer Voices: Tennessee’s Rich History Is Collected Online

November 1, 2009

Recipient:University of Tennessee in Knoxville, TN

Grant: 2005 National Leadership Grants / Building Digital Resources

Pictured: Tennessee State Librarian & Archivist Jeanne Sugg at "Tennessee's Big Digital Debut," a reception that showcased Volunteer Voices. Photograph by James Staub.

Tiffani Conner

Ken Middleton

Web Site:

For decades, sources of Tennessee’s rich history have been scattered across the 440-mile width of the state, on the shelves of small-town libraries, in the archives of universities, and in the back rooms of local historical and genealogical societies.

Among the resources were pictures of schoolchildren from the Depression, police notes on the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., sheet music poking fun at the teaching of evolution from the time of the 1925 Scopes monkey trial, and documents from Civil War battles.

But nowhere were the documents collected in one place, where users ranging from public school teachers and students to advanced scholars and researchers could pore over them for the nuances of history.

Now that has changed, as librarians have used a three-year, $928,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and a similar amount from 10 partner libraries, historical societies, and museums in the state to create Volunteer Voices (, a digital museum of nearly 11,000 documents and images. The Web site is now used in classrooms throughout the state.

"There is a recognition in schools today that in order for students to learn history, rather than just having some historian tell them what happened, kids need to see original documents and learn to make their own analysis," said Ken Middleton, a user services librarian at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro and one of the co-principal investigators leading the project. Middleton was also a founding member of the Digistates Discussion Group, an online discussion list focused on collaborative digitization efforts of cultural heritage resources at the state, regional, and local levels. More than 40 states now have statewide digital consortia, and many of these have received IMLS funding through either the Grants to States program or National Leadership Grants.

Eyewitnesses to History

"A key goal was to create a central Internet site where teachers and students could explore the primary sources that bring Tennessee’s history to life," he said. In all, 95 institutions, from the sprawling University of Tennessee in Knoxville and the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville to small libraries in rural parts of the state, contributed collections of documents, photos, letters, musical scores, and other items. Often, various documents related to the same event were held at different libraries. The sheet music related to the Scopes trial, for example, was stored at the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee, while other documents and photos from the trial were in the Bryan College library in Dayton, where the celebrated trial was held.

In this visual age, photographs in the collection help students identify with people from another era. "When kids in grade school have an assignment on the Depression," Middleton said, "they need to see what kids from the thirties looked like." The small Stewart County library contributed informal photos of children taken in the 1930s and 1940s to the Volunteer Voices effort.

Significant Events Mark Tennessee Life through the Years

Middleton said he considers the Civil Rights era (including King’s assassination), the Scopes trial, and Civil War battles in the state as the three most significant events in Tennessee history. But the state also sent three native sons—Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Andrew Johnson—to the White House in the nineteenth century. Volunteer Voices has thousands of items documenting all these events and other subjects, with links to events outside the state as well.

Browse a bit on the section of the site related to African Americans and you will find an 1836 bill of sale for slaves sold to Britton Duke, a police note on the trajectory of the bullet that killed King, a 1956 letter to the Memphis mayor protesting the appointment of a "negro" to the board of a local hospital, and a photo of Alfred Jackson, a former slave owned by President Andrew Jackson.

The Scopes trial link includes a photo of famed lawyer Clarence Darrow arriving in Dayton as he is greeted by his client, John T. Scopes, and a picture of the courtroom during the trial. Probe further and find a photo of the jury that convicted Scopes, as well as a photo of the crowd that gathered outside the courthouse, with a sign admonishing "Read Your Bible."

Check the references for moonshine, and Volunteer Voices has pictures of mountain men and their secret distillery operations and folk art of a moonshine operation with the inscription, "What was going on down in the ‘Bug Hole’ during prohibition."

Tiffani Conner, now the extended sites librarian at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, TN, was the project manager for Volunteer Voices. She said that creation of the site not only resulted in the collection of a vast amount of Tennessee-related material but also connected a wide range of institutions, such as university and local public libraries, historical societies, and such cultural institutions as the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s home, in new ways.

"We received quite a large amount of information from genealogical societies" scattered throughout the state, she added.

Volunteer Voices in the Classroom

Nancy Kemp, a former high school American history teacher who now teaches English, was the education coordinator for Volunteer Voices and helped teach 135 K-12 instructors how to use the Web site in their classrooms.

She said that the use of primary sources is important in instructing students about the history of their state. "If you don’t," she said, "you lose the opportunity to make all that history come to life. We teach the students how to analyze these sources rather than just having them reading textbooks. The kids become engaged with their learning."

"There’s fabulous material in Volunteer Voices," she said. "In one case we were able to show students how downtown Knoxville has changed. We saw the old pictures and then the newer ones. And the kids recognized the streets and saw how the community has changed."

Beth Deere, a middle school teacher in Lexington, Tenn., described Volunteer Voices as "absolutely one of the best sources I’ve ever used." As both an American history and English teacher, she said she has shown, among other images, large photos of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in New York, letters and diaries of slaves in Tennessee, and pre-Depression-era photos of families living in the Smoky Mountains not far from Lexington.

"I showed a wanted poster for a runaway slave," she said, "and the kids were just amazed that was accepted in those days-- that people could be treated that way."

"In my English class, after fall break, because a lot of them visit the Smoky Mountains then, I showed them a photo of an Appalachian family and used it as a springboard to writing a story about it. It inspired so much creativity in the kids."

National Leadership Grants for Libraries