In our current issue, history columnist Vance Lauderdale writes about Nadia Price, one of the most successful commercial photographers in Memphis, a unique accomplishment because in those days — and we’re only talking a few decades ago — professional photography was pretty much a man’s world.
Shortly before her death in 2013, Nadia donated many of her photographs to the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, and the Nadia Price Collection is now part of the Memphis and Shelby County Room. A terrific resource for local historians, this cozy fourth-floor retreat, part of the library’s history department, is supervised by senior manager G. Wayne Dowdy, and we asked him what other objects and artifacts could be found here.
By way of introduction, though, we should say that Dowdy is a Memphis native, who earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in history from the University of Arkansas. He has worked at the library for 22 years, but it would be a mistake to call him “only” a librarian. This man of many talents is the author of five popular books on local history: On This Day in Memphis History (2014), A Brief History of Memphis (2011), Hidden History of Memphis (2010), Crusades for Freedom: Memphis and the Political Transformation of the American South (2010), and Mayor Crump Don't Like It: Machine Politics in Memphis (2006).
Here, Dowdy talks about Nadia’s donation, along with a “wish list” of other historical items, as well as things the main library can’t use or accept.
Memphis: Can you give our readers some idea of the number of photos that Nadia Price donated to the library?
Dowdy: The Nadia Price Collection contains close to 1,100 images, arranged into eight boxes of photographs, slides, and negatives. The images in the collection were taken between the mid-1930s and the late 1970s and include photos of Memphis homes, streets, churches, the Mississippi River, the YWCA summer camp Miramichee, and some of the items from her acclaimed exhibit, “A Delta Era Gone By.”
If someone visited the Memphis Room and wanted to view the Nadia Price Collection, what would they see? Is it in notebooks, boxes, what?
The collection has been completely organized and is available for researchers. It is housed in archival boxes and archival photo albums in order to properly preserve the items. A directory or “finding aid” has been created which lists the items in the collection and where they are located. Researchers can either consult the physical finding aid when visiting the Memphis and Shelby County Room or search for Nadia Price at the library’s digital archive Dig Memphis, which contains scans of some of the images housed in the physical collection.
Is the collection finished, or still a work in progress?
The Nadia Price Collection is finished and is available for anyone who wants to use it.
Last year, our magazine focused on another important collection of photographs archived in the Memphis Room — the Joe Bennett Collection, which contained never-before-seen photographs of East End Park. What other important photo collections do you have?
We also house the Saul Brown, Roy Cajero, and J.C. Coovert collections, all professional photographers in Memphis. In addition, we also have images taken by the Hooks Brothers and Clifford Poland in our Memphis and Shelby County Room Photograph Collection.
Is there any “wish list” of photographs that you don't have, but wish you could add to the present archives?
There are many gaps in our collection which we hope someday to fill. For example, we don’t have any photographs from the 1860s and 1870s, including the Civil War years. Nor do we have images from the 1927 flood — we have a wonderful set of images from the 1937 flood, but not 1927.
We also have very few images of Memphis’ musical culture, although the Roy Cajero collection contains great photos of musicians from the 1980s and 1990s. Most importantly we don’t have nearly enough images of so-called common Memphians who built our city. This is especially true of our immigrant communities. Everyone is a historical figure and we believe strongly that the stories and likenesses of the non-rich and famous should be preserved for future generations.
What is the most challenging part of archiving old collections like these?
Preserving and organizing any collection is difficult and time-consuming, photograph collections especially so. Not only are photos easily damaged and often need repair, but the subjects also need to be identified. This requires searching through books, newspaper clippings, and other collections to try and identify what is contained within the photograph.
What other non-photo historical items are in your department?
Perhaps the most unusual collection we have is the Socialist Party Collection which contains, among other things, the meeting minutes of the organization from May 4, 1932 to December 30, 1934. Who would know that we once had a functioning Socialist party in Memphis if the library hadn’t preserved the collection?
Do you have a particular favorite group or collection — something that personally appeals to you as a published historian?
My personal favorites are the Mayor Frank T. Tobey and Arthur L. Webb collections. Tobey was the first collection I was assigned to catalog when I came to the library, and in doing so, I not only learned how to archive historical documents but also learned how significant a leader Frank Tobey was.
Arthur Webb was a brilliant historical researcher and genealogist who planned to write a book but unfortunately passed away before he could do so. However, his knowledge is now safely preserved and accessible in the Memphis and Shelby County Room. It is an honor to preserve the legacy of the many undeservedly forgotten Memphians such as Tobey and Webb.
Is there anything that your department either: 1) already has too many copies of, or 2) physically can't accept or handle?
We specialize in the history of Memphis and Shelby County by collecting flat documents such as photos, letters, diaries, and other two-dimensional items. We do not collect three dimensional items such as material objects (such as furniture) and fabrics. We let our friends at the Pink Palace collect those types of items.
As mentioned, you are the author of five history books. What’s your next project?
I’m currently writing a history of Boy Scouting in Memphis, which I hope will be published by Amazon later this year. I’m also now writing the local history column for the Best Times magazine.