Behind the Scenes: Archiving the Photographs of Billy Barnes

We welcome a guest post today from Patrick Cullom, an archivist at Wilson Library on the UNC campus, who has a special connection to the new book by Robert Korstad and James Leloudis, To Right These Wrongs: The North Carolina Fund and the Battle to End Poverty and Inequality in 1960s America.–ellen

Billy Barnes inspects his camera while on site at the scene of a house fire in Craven County March 28, 1966 (P34_51905/C1_21); from the Billy E. Barnes Collection (P0034), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Billy Barnes inspects his camera while on site at the scene of a house fire in Craven County March 28, 1966

Last month I had the pleasure of attending the book release party for To Right These Wrongs, written by Jim Leloudis and Robert Korstad, with photographs by Billy Barnes.  This powerful book brings the reader back to a period in our state’s past when the North Carolina Fund (1963-1969) was initially formed and put into action across the state.  This was a time of great change in North Carolina. The Civil Rights Movement continued to gain strength across the state.  Paired with the full force of a progressive governor and his vision of economic equality for all citizens, the North Carolina Fund transformed the lives of countless citizens from the mountains to the coast.

The book release party, held at the Carolina Inn, was simply a wonderful event.  There were numerous people there who were originally involved with the project, including Nathan Garrett, Rubye Gattis, and Billy Barnes.  Also in attendance were friends and colleagues of Governor Sanford’s, including Dr. William C. Friday. I felt like I was getting to see some old friends I hadn’t seen in 30-40 years; but I guess I should begin by qualifying that last statement.  Other than Billy Barnes, who I have had the pleasure of knowing for the last few years, I had never met anyone associated with the NC Fund before that night.  I am also in my mid-thirties and am obviously too young to have been involved in the project.

So let me explain my “connection” to the Fund. I work for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the Technical Services department of Special Collections in Wilson Library.  More specifically, I am the Visual Materials Archivist for Special Collections.  I have spent the last three years working with large photographic collections in the North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives.   During this period I had the privilege of processing the Billy Barnes Photographic Collection.

A main part of my job is to work with collections like the Barnes materials and to arrange, preserve, and describe them so they are more accessible to researchers and the general public.  The Barnes materials include approximately 63,000 images taken across the state (with a concentration around the Durham/Orange County area) and spanning almost 4 decades (1959-1996). They offer a unique view into the economic and social changes experienced across the state during this period and the effects those changes had on the people of North Carolina.

As I processed the collection, I transferred the photographic materials to archival quality housing, created descriptions (fortunately I was able to use Mr. Barnes’s own descriptions for many of them), arranged the materials, and wrote a finding aid that provides access to the entire collection.  This collection also has a digital element that contains a sample of Barnes’s work; links to that collection can be found in the finding aid.

Take a look at the finding aid:

Billy Ebert Barnes Photographic Collection (P0034)

While processing this archive, I handled and looked at literally every image in the collection.  Billy served as the head photographer for the NC Fund and in this role he both documented and promoted the work of the Fund across the state.  The Billy Barnes Collection contains his work both before and after the period of time the Fund was in existence.  It is worth noting that the images in To Right These Wrongs are only a “drop in the bucket” when it comes to the images taken by Billy which document the North Carolina Fund. Hopefully, this new archive will be a rich source for more research in the years to come.

–Patrick Cullom
UNC Libraries