Allen Stokes

Curating the past

Librarian marks half-century of service in South Caroliniana Library

So much of the university landscape has changed in the 50 years Allen Stokes has worked in the South Caroliniana Library. The size of campus and student enrollment is much larger than when he began in 1972, the quantity and caliber of faculty research is better, and the library’s collections are bigger.

By contrast, Stokes’ personal landscape — literally, the space around his desk where he sorts through collections — looks much the same as it did a half-century ago. He’s still surrounded by boxes of correspondence, photos, memorabilia and other materials related to the history and culture of the state. South Caroliniana was launched as a special collections library in 1940, and Stokes has devoted his career to curating those materials.

“One of the projects I’m working on now is transcribing the letters of Benjamin Perry, a 19th century South Carolina unionist,” Stokes says, pointing to a facsimile of a letter written in 1848. “We have 600 of his letters altogether, and I don’t know if I’ll ever finish.”

Stokes is also sifting through materials from the late Harvey Teal, a public school educator, writer and “shoe leather historian” who passed away in 2020 after having donated thousands of papers, images and published materials to the South Caroliniana Library.

These are the collections that enable historians to do research. These papers, books, pamphlets and so forth — if none of that existed, it would be very difficult to do any significant historical research.

Allen Stokes

When Stokes talks about Teal, Perry and any of the other hundreds of South Carolinians whose materials have crossed his desk, he opens a window on the Palmetto State’s past and connects the dots of the state’s cultural history. His memory of the people, the places and the events is a testament to the long arc of his career as a professional librarian.

“My father was the shipping clerk at Spartan Mills in Spartanburg, and I worked summer jobs in the mills growing up,” he says. “I was fascinated with the textile industry, including how it came to be in South Carolina. That was part of the inspiration that led me to studying S.C. history.”

After earning a bachelor’s in history from Wofford in 1967, Stokes completed a master’s in history at South Carolina and would eventually devote his dissertation to the topic of Black labor in the Southern textile industry. But before he could begin his doctoral work, Uncle Sam came calling.

“I had used up my student deferments earning a master’s, so in 1970 I went to signal school at Fort Gordon and then was sent to Vietnam as a signal officer in an artillery battalion,” Stokes says. “When the colonel realized I could type better than the company clerk, I became the S1 [administration officer] in addition to my signal officer duties.”

Stokes was out of the Army by January 1972 and successfully interviewed to become a manuscript librarian in the South Caroliniana Library. He completed his Ph.D. in 1977, and in the early ‘80s when then-director Les Inabinet retired, Stokes became the library’s director.

“The ‘70s and ‘80s were great times. The book Roots got a lot of people interested in genealogy, and we had a good many people working on their family trees — we still do,” he says. “Graduate students from other universities were coming to work on their dissertations every summer, including Drew Faust, who would later become president of Harvard.”

The university’s applied history program and its Institute for Southern Studies also made the South Caroliniana Library and its holdings a mecca for many graduate student and scholarly research projects. Through the years, Stokes has worked with scores of individuals across the state who have entrusted to the library their collections of letters, diaries, photos and other ephemera that document South Carolina’s culture.

“These are the collections that enable historians to do research,” he says. “These papers, books, pamphlets and so forth — if none of that existed, it would be very difficult to do any significant historical research.”

Funds to acquire collections were meager 50 years ago, Stokes says. Today, as the result of development initiatives, there are funds for acquisitions and funds to provide research opportunities for students and learning opportunities for student assistants in the library.

Stokes retired as library director in 2003 but continued to work full time with the library’s manuscripts. Two years later when his successor moved to another position in University Libraries, Stokes was back in the saddle as director and continued for several more years before retiring again about 10 years ago. Since then, he has worked part time, doing what he has always done — curating the collections that help tell the story of South Carolina’s past.

“I have those ‘aha’ moments where you find something in a collection and immediately think, ‘This is something that a researcher will want to see,’ ” Stokes says. “That’s what has made this work so interesting for so long.”

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