My Archive Angels

They aren’t your stereotypical librarians anymore: stern-looking ladies with wire-rimmed glasses, their long hair knotted in a bun so tight it would shed water.

They’ve become archivists.

History detectives who will take a clue, a single thread of information, and will diligently begin tracing it back to its roots, combing through musty books, spooling reels of microfilm onto a belligerent projector, and clicking through digitalized files now accessible through the internet. Along the way they uncover valuable nuggets of priceless information you and I would never have discovered, information that otherwise might have remained forever lost.

I know this because I am now writing what will immediately become an obscure book on an obscure topic: how the Arts and Crafts movement influenced three North Carolina cottage industries: Biltmore Industries, Tryon Toymakers, and The Artisans’ Shop.

Sounds like an obscure master’s thesis, doesn’t it?

What these three workshops had in common – and what makes this topic all the more intriguing to me — is a pair of modest ladies: Misses Eleanor Vance and Charlotte Yale. They intentionally lived quiet lives, avoiding publicity and photographers, preferring instead to remain in the background, teaching young men and women how to create exquisite hand-carved walnut bowls, bookends, desk sets, boxes, and trays. Each, along with an occasional piece of furniture, were branded with their mark and sold to the growing number of tourists who were streaming into Asheville in the early years of the past century.

In 1951, when Vance and Yale were in their eighties, a young woman wrote a magazine article on their united life’s work, as these two women first met in 1899 as students at the Moody Bible Institute and remained inseparable companions for more than half a century. After reading her final draft, Charlotte Yale replied, “Please do not let the fact that we could not let it be printed make any difference with our friendship… but it is too intimate for two people whose effort was to serve unnoticed and to work unseen.”

I have a photocopy of that unpublished manuscript, but I wouldn’t have were it not for one of my Archive Angels, who pulled a tattered copy out of a museum file folder and quietly slid a copy across the counter to me.

Last week I was continuing my quest to fill in huge gaps, entire years in the lives of Misses Vance and Yale that were gone completely, or so I thought, until I began asking my Archive Angels: Zoe and Ann in the North Carolina Room inside Asheville’s downtown library; Jill, Lori, and Winnie at the Biltmore House; Boyd in Mansfield, Ohio; Tamar in Chicago; Debbie in Oberlin; Diana at the Asheville School; Jennifer in the Cincinnati Art Museum; and Ariella in the Cincinnati Public Library.

In each case I gave them little more than two names and a few dates, and in each case they began pulling out musty volumes and clicking through their keyboards, putting aside pressing administrative duties to find a missing piece of information in a census report, a letter, or a city directory, yet another in a roster of enrolled students, a yearbook, or a relative’s obituary, and more still in a faded newspaper clipping or a blurry black-and-white photograph.

It was all information you and I could never have found without driving or flying hundreds of miles — and even then having no idea where to begin looking, emerging hours or even days later back into the bright sunlight, discouraged and disheartened.

But those frustrating days are now gone, now that we have our Archive Angels.

Until next Monday,

Find yours.


Top: One of Vance and Yale’s students, duplicating a tea table from plans published in The Craftsman magazine.

Middle: A walnut double-squirrel bowl carved under the direction of Eleanor Vance at Biltmore Estate Industries in Asheville around 1910.