If you’ve never visited the Birmingham Public Library Archives, located in climate controlled space in the basement of the Linn-Henley Research Library, you have no idea what you’re missing.
Seriously – it’s not just books. The Archives holds the records of the entire Birmingham region, including documents, more than half a million photographs, and priceless official paperwork, including the city jail docket recording the names of Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, and other Civil Rights Movement luminaries.
And it’s open to the public. Homeowners, students, journalists, historians and researchers from all over the world all use it – as many as 200 a month. “I get emails every day. In a given year, we’ll deal with researchers from 35 to 40 states and several foreign countries,” said Jim Baggett, the BPL archivist for the past 20 years. “I got one from Australia this morning.
“I get emails from middle-schoolers in New Zealand who get an assignment every year to do a class paper on the ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail,’” he said.
In fact, Weld’s ongoing Civil Rights Era series No More Bull! depends nearly entirely on vintage imagery that can be found nowhere else besides the BPL Archives.
Filmmakers, including Spike Lee, have mined the BPL Archives for images they have used to craft award-winning documentaries and big-budget motion pictures. Pulitzer Prize-winning books have been built in part around materials housed in the Archives. And it’s worth noting that the Library builds exhibits – which go on display in Birmingham before traveling to other locales – with materials collected and stored in the Archives.
Baggett can rattle off an unbelievable litany of what’s to be found in the Archives. “It’s a very broad collection. We serve as archives for the city of Birmingham, so we house records of the city departments,” Baggett said. “We have papers of the mayors from George Ward through Richard Arrington. We’re not officially the county archives but we have a lot of county records. We serve as the archives for a lot of local organizations like the chamber of commerce, ONB (Operation New Birmingham), YMCA, YWCA, a lot of women’s clubs, study clubs, things like that.
“We’re the archives for the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, so we have Episcopal records for the entire state as well as records for a lot of parishes. We have the records of Temple Emanu-El, Temple Beth-El, First Presbyterian, Independent Presbyterian, so there’s a lot of church and synagogue records here. One of our areas of focus is on Jewish history and life in Alabama,” Baggett said. But he wasn’t finished.
“We have a very large collection on women’s history, which is papers of individuals, clubs, organizations, League of Women Voters records, the American Association of University Women, so all sorts of organizations like that,” he noted.
The Archives focuses on primarily the five counties in the Birmingham metro area, but, as Baggett notes, “Within that, there are records of religious leaders, civil rights leaders, businessmen, homemakers, school teachers, musicians, artists, athletes…
“We don’t actually know, but we have something in the neighborhood of 30 million documents. I tell people that if you put all the paper here in one big stack, it would be taller than Vulcan and Red Mountain.”
People use the Archives to research the history of a building or a house they’ve bought, primarily using records from the Jefferson County Board of Equalization. Those same records are in demand for engineering companies doing assessments for environmental impact studies – where they need to know how the land has been used in the past. “We have people come every day doing that,” Baggett said.
The board of equalization records, which go back to 1938, provide a glimpse of the Archives’ preservation of regional detail. During the period between 1938 and 1940, workers went throughout Jefferson County appraising every piece of property – more than 160,000 parcels – and photographing every standing building in the county. “That’s every house, church, school, store, barn, tool shed, Rickwood Field, Legion Field –probably a million photographs,” he said. Those records, updated every few years, provide a thorough look at the way the entire county looked in a given time period, and how it changed over the decades. “It’s an amazing collection,” Baggett said.
To dig into the Archives requires little more than a trip to the library, where Baggett and his staff will help researchers, and even help guide people who aren’t sure exactly where to begin looking for what they want to know. “People often come to us with an idea, and we help them determine what’s here that might be useful to them. Or sometimes, we don’t have what they need. What they need might be at the state archives in Montgomery, or maybe at Samford University or at UAB or something.”
While the Archives maintains original documents, they also digitize selected collections which could suffer from heavy and repeated use – such as civil rights records, including the papers of the notorious segregationist, Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, as well as documents related to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing 49 years ago. Some records in such high demand are available online.
The BPL Archives also maintains a list of professional researchers who can do remote research for people who are out of town or out of state.
With so much devotion to the intimate details of the Birmingham region, relatively few people know much about the Archives, or the rest of the historical documents existing in the Linn-Henley building. “Birmingham never appreciates what it has,” Baggett said. “I think that a lot of people really don’t know that we have one of the finest research libraries in the Southeast, right here.”