Krystal Appiah appointed to new role as curator in the Small Special Collections Library

In December of 2021, the University Library announced the appointment of Krystal Appiah as curator in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library where she will help develop a vision and strategy for growth in the library’s local, state, and regional holdings. Krystal joined the Library staff in 2017 as the Instruction Librarian in Special Collections; and although she has moved on from that position, she will continue to be involved in the Library’s instruction program. In announcing the appointment, Associate University Librarian for Special Collections and Preservation, Brenda Gunn said, “As the leader of this important effort, Krystal will have the opportunity to make a significant contribution to research and scholarship at the University through her selections and acquisitions and I’m excited to see how our collection is refined and grows under her stewardship.”

Recently, Krystal spoke with Library Communications about her new responsibilities and the impact she expects to have on the collection. 

In general, what does a curator of Special Collections do? How do you view your new role?

One of a curator’s main roles is collection development, acquiring materials related to a certain topic. I’ll be working with donors and vendors of materials relevant to Virginia history to determine if the Small Special Collections Library is the right place for those materials to be used and preserved. I’m also responsible for consulting with my colleagues who do the processing, digitization, and preservation of Virginia collections. A curator also highlights how collections might be used for research projects, commemorations, teaching, podcasts, and more. I can also provide specialized assistance for researchers trying to find materials about state or local history.

You will be overseeing the Small Library’s holdings of local, state, and regional history. Can you give us an idea of the scope of the material you will be working with?

Part of my job will be defining the parameters of the historical material we should acquire. I plan to focus on local history of Charlottesville, Albemarle County, and the surrounding counties in Central Virginia. I don’t want our collecting efforts to overlap or compete with other institutions’, so I’ll be reaching out to colleagues at institutions such as Virginia Tech, the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, and James Madison University to talk about where their regional collecting ends and ours begins. In terms of Virginia history, we don’t collect materials on all areas of the commonwealth but focus more on collections that are relevant to the state as a whole.

What are some areas that Special Collections needs to strengthen to fill gaps in the historical narrative as it has been taught?

African American history is an area where we have rich materials from some decades but relatively little from other eras. Locally, we have growing Latino, Asian, and refugee populations that aren’t represented at all in our collections. There are a few items related to LGBTQ people at UVA, but major gaps in the wider community. Working-class communities are also underrepresented in our collections, as they are in many archives.

How can Special Collections broaden outreach in the local community among people who have been excluded from the settler conquest version of history?

It’s important to listen to what communities want. Some may want their materials to be preserved and made accessible in the Small Library. Others may want to pursue a post-custodial model of stewardship which allows groups to retain their materials, and makes our staff available to assist with training in archival processing and preservation. There are many groups, such as rural communities, African American residents, and working-class people, who have either been deliberately excluded or not made welcome at UVA, and community and family historians are doing the work of passing down their histories from generation to generation. I’ll take my time building trust to learn how we can best work collectively to steward these materials. In addition to acquiring materials, I will reach out to provide orientations on archival research and will help community members to use materials already in our possession which are relevant to them.

Can you give us an example of forgotten history that you would like people to know about?

We have many, many collections and printed materials that document city and county planning efforts, and materials that show whose voices get heard and whose don’t. Local governments are constantly making decisions that impact affordable housing, road construction, and transit. It’s fascinating to see how the same issues continue to crop up. A researcher recently told me about “The Beam,” a newsletter published by the housekeeping labor union at the UVA Hospital in the 1940s. I can’t wait to see what topics they discussed!

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