Tennessee's Archives

An archive is a repository for an organized body of records produced or received by a public, semipublic, institutional, or business entity in the transaction of its affairs and preserved by it, or its successors. The development of the archives system in Tennessee emerged from the public records system in use in British North America, specifically in the Carolina Colony established in 1663. The plantation system of land survey was particularly important, since it and other record practices traveled from North Carolina to Tennessee in the period following the American Revolution. Only vague provisions for the preservation of records were made.

The Constitutions of 1796, 1834 and 1870 recognized the secretary of state as the chief records keeper of the state. After more than a century of neglect, the general assembly made its first appropriation for the preservation of state records in 1907. No specific state agency was designated as the repository of state government records until 1919, when John T. Moore was appointed state librarian and archivist. The systematic management of state government records began in 1957, with the establishment of a Public Records Commission. It provided for the development of records retention schedules to allow the disposal of nonpermanent value records and the transfer of archival materials to the State Library and Archives for permanent retention.

Records created by county and municipal governments remained the responsibility of local government officials from the colonial period through the years of early statehood. Efforts to manage and preserve these records would not occur until the development of special agencies to provide support for municipal and county officials through the creation of the Municipal Technical Advisory Service (1949) and the County Technical Assistance Service (1973) at the University of Tennessee. In 1965 the general assembly adopted legislation which led to the compilation and printing of the first Tennessee County Records Manual (1968). By means of additional legislation, counties were encouraged to establish their own public records commissions to provide for the orderly disposition of their records, and by implication, the counties were to create their own archives for the preservation of permanent value records.

In 1961 the State Library and Archives became involved in the preservation of local government records by means of a security microfilm program for bound records. This program was a response to numerous courthouse fires and other disasters including floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes. Initially, only six counties were included, but the filming of records in all counties was completed by 1976. In conjunction with Homecoming ’86 programs and activities, a new microfilm project filmed both county and municipal records for the years 1900 to 1950 for forty-nine counties. A later phase of the project completed 1950-85 records for thirty counties. In 1994 the general assembly reestablished the Local Records Microfilming Program, providing microfilm operators to four on-site locations across the state. Projects to preserve loose records of local government are also included in the program of the State Library and Archives. As a result of an agreement with the Genealogical Society of Utah, work has begun on the processing of loose local government records for microfilming in twenty-five counties.

College and university archives account for another type of archival repository in Tennessee. Several public institutions of higher learning maintain an archives for the preservation of the official school records, as well as special collections of private manuscript collections. Special collections at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and the University of Memphis, and the Gore Research Center at Middle Tennessee State University are examples of such repositories. Private college and university archives in Tennessee include those located at Vanderbilt University, Fisk University, Rhodes College, and many others. Several colleges and universities with religious affiliations also operate a special religious archives. Lambuth College includes the archives for the Memphis Conference of the United Methodist Church, while Belmont University, Carson-Newman College, and Union University serve as archives for the Tennessee Baptist Convention. Separate religious archives are operated by the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, Diocese of Nashville, Disciples of Christ Historical Society, the Foundation for the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Publishing House of the United Methodist Church.

Among the medical archives located in the state are those maintained by the Eskind Biomedical Center Library at Vanderbilt University, Saint Thomas Hospital, Meharry Medical College, East Tennessee State University, and the University of Tennessee at Memphis.

Various historical and genealogical societies have placed their records in the care of other institutions. County historical society collections are often located at the local county public library. The holdings of the East Tennessee Historical Society are housed in East Tennessee Historical Center; the Calvin McClung Historical Collection is in the Knox County Public Library; the Chattanooga Area Historical Society collection is at the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Bicentennial Library; the West Tennessee Society collections and the Mississippi Valley Collection are housed in the McWherter Library at the University of Memphis; and the Tennessee Historical Society has its collections at the State Library and Archives. The Tennessee Valley Authority maintains an archive for its records in Chattanooga.

Several private companies and corporations, including financial institutions and manufacturing firms, maintain their own archives. Examples of these include Coca-Cola, Jack Daniel Distillery, and the First American Bank.

In an effort to make historical records more accessible to the public, a directory of historical records repositories was undertaken in celebration of the state bicentennial.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Tennessee's Archives
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 20, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018