The Tennessee State Library & Archives is attempting to preserve as many artifacts from World War I as possible, a century after it was fought. Historians are traveling around the state to photograph papers, uniforms, even firearms that have never been documented.
The state just wrapped up a similar project with items from the Civil War. That project got a big response, helping the state archives digitize about 4,000 Civil War artifacts.
But even though World War I was more recent — 1914 to 1918 — it was, of course, not fought on Tennessee soil. Myers Brown, a state archivist leading the program, says he was worried that people would be less enthusiastic about the call to bring in items. But that hasn’t been the case, he says.
“The response has really, in some cases, been almost overwhelming,” he says. “And I think part of it is, people have been holding onto this, and then all of a sudden they find out that someone is finally interested in hearing about WWI.”
State archivists are setting up events around Tennessee over the next few years where people can come in and create a digital record of their items. They’ve already stopped once in Nashville and Jackson, capturing about 400 images in each city. Their next stop is in Blount County in East Tennessee this week.
The items people are bringing have remained largely in family collections up until now. Among Brown’s favorites: a birthday letter from the Queen of England to an American in the British regiment; photographs of a Tennessee soldier in Germany after the war; the scrapbook of a high school senior in Jackson, Tenn., whose boyfriend was away in the Army.
Brown says he sees this as the last chance to preserve important material. After the 100th anniversary, he says, “World War I does kind of move to the back burner of American memory.”
And by the next big anniversary, many of the items will have been lost.