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You may not know it, but many Thursday afternoons there’s detective work going on in the public library. Twice a month, volunteers gather in the Kaplan Auditorium while their leader, Ron Partin, assembles a batch of 20-30 digital images to display on the giant screen before them.
Together, they study the photographs—sometimes zooming in on faces or license plates or clothing embroidery—to try to identify anything they can in the often anonymous stills of weddings or street dances or studio portraits. From a distance, the whole scene seems like something from an episode of CSI.
The photographs come from the Baker-Barber collection, an assortment of 75,000 images ranging from 1880 to 1990 and archived in the Henderson County Public Library. The collection, donated by a generous grant from Jody Barber and maintained by the Community Foundation of Henderson County, paints a rich portrait of life in western North Carolina during the last century. But few of the images carry identifying information. The indices—with the names and dates and places—were lost in a fire in 1967.
Enter the volunteer detectives.
During their sessions, they shout out names and places as each new photograph is flashed upon the screen. Over time, they are filling in missing information. So it was that someone shouted out “Geneva Smith” when the screen filled with a smiling young woman one Thursday afternoon.
Now 82 years old, Geneva Smith was surprised to hear that someone had recognized her in an unmarked print made 60 years ago. But sure enough, when she saw the photo, she recognized the 18-year-old Geneva smiling back at her, too. Although she has no memory of actually posing for the photograph, she does remember that dress. It was yellow.
Geneva laughs about what was coming for this 18-year-old version of herself. She had just moved to Hendersonville from Spartanburg for the summer. She was supposed to be saving money by working as a nanny for a family for a few months before returning home to attend nursing school. In this flash of her life caught by the photograph, she had already decided she didn’t intend to go to nursing school. But she hadn’t yet told her mom.
This is Geneva at a crossroads, on the cusp of adulthood. In the coming years, she would move briefly to New York, get married, return to Hendersonville, and build a life: raise three children, put in 25 years at GE, serve on the board of Habitat for Humanity and the Hendersonville Rescue Mission. But this is Geneva just before all of that. Poised for what’s to come—in her yellow dress.
As is the case with Geneva Smith’s photograph, the Baker-Barber collection not only captures the visual past of Henderson County, but also holds inside of its photographs countless wide-reaching stories. The volunteers who work to identify the images help to unspool some of these stories, and they welcome more help. Anyone can join these sleuths at 1:30 on the first and third Thursdays of the month in the Kaplan Auditorium of the Henderson County Public Library.
And beginning Jan. 4, the collection is going on the road, if not too far down the road. An exhibit at the Henderson County Heritage Museum at the Historic Courthouse will surround viewers with a pictorial history of the life of the collection—stretching from its first photographer, Englishman Arthur Farrington Baker, and his first studio in 1884 to the current work to identify and digitize the images. The collaborative effort by the Community Foundation, the Heritage Museum, and the Public Library will be on display for six months.
While many of the names and stories within the photos may appear out-of-focus at first glance, the volunteers and staff who work with the collection don’t want the images to be hidden from the view. The public is encouraged to attend the viewing sessions at the library, to explore the exhibit at the Heritage Museum, and to scroll through the digitized images online via the library’s website. After all, you may be the key to tracking down an unknown story. Within these photos you may find a long-lost relative or a bygone landmark. Or an 18-year-old version of yourself you’d nearly forgotten.