The archives at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library are cold, but the crisp temperature-controlled air still smells of books.
Archivist and local author Mona Vance seems very at home in the small, packed room. When asked about any random item, she is able to spout off a short history of it from memory, an impressive feat considering the quantity of historical treasures she’s surrounded by.
According to Vance, “history has always been in (her) blood.”
“My grandmother, Mona Schmidt, collected antiques and both my mother, Kathy Vance, and my father, Steven Vance, had their masters in history. History allows us to reach into another time and place and experience a different world. It also answers so many questions as to how and why our lives are the way they are today. History is powerful,” she said.
Although from Mobile, Ala., Vance visited her grandparents in Columbus often as a child. She liked the area and it seemed like a natural place for her to live. She attended Mississippi University for Women for her bachelors degree in Communication/Public Relations and a minor in History. She moved to acquire her masters at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington in U.S. History with a concentration in Public History. She has been an archivist at the Columbus-Lowndes Library since 2005.
The 32-year-old has done a lot in the local history world since her graduation. She has become well known for her expertise in the field, and has a published book about the history of Lowndes County, “Images of America: Columbus” published by Arcadia Publishing in 2011.
“The history of Lowndes County is truly amazing,” she said. “For example, when I was working on my recent book … I realized the plethora of people from this area that have made huge impacts not only nationally, but internationally as well. Locals such as boxer Henry Armstrong (born Henry Jackson, Jr.), Walt Disney Oscar-winning animator Joshua Meador, sports announcer Walter Lanier ‘Red’ Barber, writer and playwright Thomas Lanier ‘Tennessee’ Williams, negro-league and major-league baseball players Samuel Harding Hairston and Samuel Jethroe, blues artist Big Joe Williams, former NBA basketball player Clarence Weatherspoon Sr., and retired NFL football player Jerry Lee Rice. Lenore L. Prather, the first female chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, is also from Columbus, and Pulitzer prizewinner Eudora Welty found inspiration here while a student at Mississippi University for Women.”
She said she decided to write a book on Columbus because she knew there was a “gold mine of history sitting in the vault” at the library that she wanted to share with everyone.
“I saw how other towns had similar books through Arcadia Publishing depicting their histories, towns, and people and thought why doesn’t Columbus have one, too?
“One of the things that drew me to this particular type of book was that it contains primarily photographs,” said Vance. “People absolutely love photographs. Even people with a minimal interest in history can enjoy looking at old photographs. So I contacted Arcadia Publishing through South Carolina and, over the course of around eight to 10 months, worked feverishly to search for and scan over 300 photographs, choose which photographs made it into the layout, organize the layout, research the text, write the text, and then send it off to be printed!”
Vance said she used photos from various manuscript collections, scrapbooks, photo collections, maps and books.
“I also researched various records such as city directories, books, vertical files, manuscript collections, census records and much more to find out information about the businesses and people in the photographs,” she added.
When asked about her preferred subjects to research, Vance admitted to a love of people in period dress.
“I love seeing the different style of dress, the candid shots of people just playing and having fun together,” she said. “There are a few photographs in (my) book that really stand out to me. Two pictures included in the book depict when the Ringling Bros. Circus came to Columbus in 1908 and marched up and down Main Street with 40 elephants, 20 camels, and a whole host of other exotic animals as well as circus folk. They also capture many of the buildings on Main Street north, some of which are no longer there.
“Another image that I love is of a domino dance and dinner taken from inside the Gilmer Hotel on February 16, 1915,” she said. “It was hosted by the Choctaw Club, a social club organized in 1911, and it shows two long tables with over 100 people seated having an elaborate dinner. The archives contains very few images of the interior of the Gilmer Hotel, torn down in 1963, and this image shows its grandeur.”
Vance is taking a hiatus from writing books at the moment and focusing on some projects at the archives, one of which is digitizing old school annuals from the area.
“Currently, the archive has several volunteers and interns working (this). The oldest (yearbook) is from Stephen D. Lee High School in 1950. Many of the yearbooks date from the 1970s forward. There are over 140 yearbooks total to digitize, with only around ten currently scanned. Once the books are scanned and the proper information recorded, the images will be uploaded to the Mississippi Digital Library through the University of Southern Mississippi,” she said.
To see what collections are already available online from the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library visit www.msdiglib.org.
A lot of the library’s archives are collected by donation. Vance scours the area for historical texts that may turn up at antique shops or yard sales, but she never has a better day then when people bring her stuff they discover in their homes.
“About six months ago, a patron came into the archives with two county record books from the early 1800s,” she said. “The family had inherited the books from their ancestors who had worked for the county court system during that time. One book was the Issue and Appearance Docket from 1861 and the other is the Book of Minutes for the Trustees of the 16th Section dated 1837 to 1869. She asked if I would be interested in them and I gave a resounding yes! The archive maintains many of the early county records, and these two were ones that would now complete a set. I was thrilled.”
Because of donations like those, people are able to come into the archives and research their family histories, past events and more.
“One of my favorite things about my job is when I see a student or a patron connect with history while researching in the archives,” she said. “It is an exciting moment when you find a document, say a probate record about your great grandfather, or when a student understands the emotional side of World War II when he/she holds original letters sent home from a soldier.
“Everyone I meet has a story to tell, and that’s one of the reasons I love working in the library and in the archives,” she added.
Vance also has to deal with the heartbreak of finding destroyed documents and photos in her searches.
“One of the biggest challenges in my job is seeing or hearing about things getting destroyed unnecessarily,” she said. “People have a great opportunity and can donate their old records, photographs, letters, ledgers, club records, business records, school annuals, and so on relating to Lowndes County to this archive, where something created about this county will remain in this county.”
Vance said that there are some basic steps that community members can take to preserve their historical books, photos and texts.
“Some of the ways people accidentally damage their historical objects include keeping them stored in the attic or basement. The attic lacks air circulation, which encourages mold growth, and it is exposed to weather extremes. For example, the attic is extremely hot and humid in the summer while it is very cold in the winter. That causes paper to take on and release water too rapidly, thus causing it to deteriorate and warp. Also, basements are too wet and damp, which also creates mold growth. People do not want to live solely in their attics or basements, and neither do your documents. The easiest thing a person can do is to learn the don’ts,” she said. “Do not use glue. Do not use tape. Do not use staples, paperclips, or anything else metal. Do not use rubber bands. And do not do anything to your documents that you can not easily undo.”
Vance also says it is never too early to start preserving your future history.
“One of the most misunderstood parts of my job is that the only things worth preserving are beyond our own lifetimes. That is not true,” she said. “History is being made every day. We want to save and preserve things from the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and even the 2000s. If we do not save it now, there is no guarantee that it will be saved at all.”
Look for Vance in upcoming issues of The Packet! Her new monthly column, “History’s Mysteries with Mona”, will premier in August!
If you are interested in volunteering to help with the yearbook project, please contact Vance at 662-329-5304.