Archivist gives inside look into collection of historical documents

It’s a busy day as usual in the Jerry Falwell Library. Fresh out of class with a full homework to-do list, students wander the shelves, searching for the perfect study spot. After perusing the library’s resources, students may stumble upon a hidden treasure located on the terrace level. Nestled beside the Curriculum Library, the Archives collection awaits to be explored as a room full of preserved history and used as a place for quiet study sessions. 

However, the Archives weren’t always as peaceful and well-organized as they are today. 

“It basically started as some file cabinets and some broken furniture alongside the edges of the room and a giant mountain of cardboard in the middle,” Abigail Sattler, the Jerry Falwell Library’s archivist, said. “There were boxes that were about 3 feet high and maybe 4 feet long, stacked two and sometimes three high. I would actually have to ascend mount cardboard to get to the boxes in the middle.” 

Sattler was hired as the first archivist in 2005, taking over for a librarian who had been collecting miscellaneous items about the university’s history as a hobby. Digging through the mountain of mystery boxes, she began organizing the materials into filing cabinets with color-coded folders marking each topic, ranging from different school departments, to Thomas Road Baptist Church records, to Jerry Falwell Sr.’s work with the Moral Majority. 

The Archives’ collection continued to grow, and the university’s library transitioned from its previous location on the first floor of DeMoss Hall to the Jerry Falwell Library of today in 2014. At that time, the Archives were moved to their more spacious and aesthetic location that they continue to occupy today. 

Photo by Brynne Smith

When Sattler came into the new archive space in early January 2014, she found a large empty space to work with. The space was soon organized and filled with tables and display cases. 

The Archives’ special collection cannot be taken off-site. Thus, the reading room is a peaceful place for students to study the materials they are interested in without needing to take them out of the collection.

The Archives’ materials are organized into many specialized categories. The categories include the history of the university, local history, a Christian fiction collection, historical hymnals, a collection exploring the intersection of politics and religion in America, and many more. The Christian fiction collection has an overlap of titles with those in the regular circulating collection, but the Christian fiction collection in the Archives seeks to establish a repository of works in that genre for future study and analysis.

Sattler’s favorite items collected by the Archives include a collection of letters written in the 1920s, right after the U.S. had begun Prohibition. The letters were written by embassy officials in reply to the Rev. Paul Hickok, who had previously written to many embassies around the world touting the benefits of Prohibition. 

“He wrote a bunch of letters to American embassies around the world asking how their countries saw prohibition,” Sattler said. “It’s pretty funny. You get the feeling from the letters written back that he was writing to the embassies like, ‘Hey, as the American embassy in this country, why don’t you suggest that they do prohibition too because it is obviously such a great idea.”

Photo by Brynne Smith

Besides finding humorous letters, Sattler’s favorite part of the job as an archivist is helping people find what they’re looking for. 

“Once, we just got a call out of the blue from a family member of someone who had recently passed away. They were looking for their loved one’s favorite hymn and found it in a hymnal in our collection. They requested that we scan a copy of the hymn and send it to them by the end of today so they could use it in the funeral,” Sattler said. “Being able to help people find what they’re looking for — it’s always very nice.”

The Archives serve as an incredible resource for research into many different areas of both university and local history, an area that Sattler feels is particularly important. 

“If you can’t show and prove and interpret your own history, other people are going to do it for you,” Sattler said. “If you don’t know where you came from, you don’t know the mistakes that have already been made that you can learn from.”

For more information about the Archives collection, visit their website or email

Perez is a feature reporter for the Liberty Champion

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