Housing Tennessee's history

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - The State Library and Archives in Nashville is an unassuming building, packed with Tennessee's history. From diaries, to court documents, criminal evidence to old photographs, if it has anything to do with the Volunteer State's past, it's housed inside.

Nowhere else in Tennessee can a box on a shelf take you back in time. State Librarian and Archivist Chuck Sherrill said it truly is a direct path to the past where a treasure is sure to be found.

He visited the Local 8 News studio carrying an envelope with weathered documents inside. "This is a Supreme Court case file from 1893 from Knoxville. It's the case of Emma Parham vs. the Mayor and Aldermen of the City of Knoxville," Sherrill said. "The city had shut down Emma Parham's business, a house of prostitution."

The documents are nearly 200 years old, hand written with bold ink, boasting an interesting story from a witness called to testify. The man told the court he didn't visit the brothel for the women: "I only know what my crowd went there for, we would go into the parlor and hear music occasionally."

It's a story that Chuck Sherrill chuckled over and said he doesn't buy.

"It reminded me of the people who used to say they read Playboy for the articles."

Sherrill also brought the diary of Union soldier Seth Abbey, which details his time during the Seige of Knoxville from October through December of 1863. The diary, written in expertly beautiful handwriting, describes the weapons used by Confederate soldiers: "Their confounded shells seem to tear up the hair on my head as they went over."

"I was just amazed not only at his beautiful handwriting, but the fact that this was probably written on his knees sitting by a campfire each night with a quill pen. It’s not an easy task to create such beautiful writing in those conditions," Sherrill mused.

The diary ended with Abbey describing a recurrence of Typhoid, and then ends abruptly, leaving the reader to wonder what happened next.

The State Library and Archives is full of stories like this—so full, it ran out of room to store the records. That's why state leaders asked for $98,000,000 for a new building, one with more space that would come with temperature and humidity control to protect the most sensitive materials, and a robotic retrieval system.

"It is an expensive building project, and there are people who think that kind of expenditure shouldn’t be made," Sherrill acknowledged. However, he remained firm in his belief that such an investment is necessary.

"I find it’s just so much easier to deal with the problems of the present if I can put them in perspective of what happened to people in the past," he said.

Sherrill said the investment is important for Tennessee's stories of the past and its stories of the future.

"If we don’t know our history, the old adage is we’re bound to repeat it," he said.

Land was procured and a building plan established back in 2008. The Senate Finance Committee voted to amend the state budget to include funding for the project. A bill in the House would accomplish the same thing.