The Metropolitan Nashville-Davidson County Government Archives: Twenty-Three Years and Counting
By Kenneth Fieth
Metropolitan Nashville-Davidson County Archivist
"...we first took the matter of building vaults into consideration and found the court house so awkwardly constructed that the building of vaults would greatly obstruct the light and diminish the space to such an extent as to make this method impractible [sic] and it would cost a very large amount, more than we could recommend to be expended on this diliapated [sic] and ill constructed building."
With that, a committee appointed to "report on what was to be done to preserve the county papers and records" went on to recommend "Wolfi patent roller shelving" and file "cases" to preserve the records of the county in the ante-bellum Davidson County courthouse. The committee suggested this would be a money-saving venture since the shelving and file cabinets could be moved into a new courthouse "which at no distant day we hope to see."
That was 1897. It would be another 39 years before the venerable old courthouse, whose walls bore witness to the days of secession, war and recovery, was destroyed to make way for a new structure, completed in 1937. Apparently, the shelving and file cases also fell to the journeyman's hammer.
It would be another 44 years before the question of what to do with over 200 years of history was again contemplated. In 1980, then Mayor Richard Fulton saw the need to create an archives for the preservation of the historical records of the city and county. The Mayor established an archives advisory committee and work began thereafter to establish an archives for Davidson County.
Mayor Fulton determined that an archives facility should be placed under the Nashville Public Library. In discussions with Marshall Stewart, then Public Library Director, Mrs. Virginia Lyle, a member of the Nashville Public Library board, was asked to be the first Metropolitan Archivist.
From 1981 to 1985, the Archives consisted of a room in the Stahlman building. In March of 1985, the Metro Council appropriated $150,000 for the renovation of the former Mt. Zeno school, a Metro-owned building on Elm Hill Pike, as the Metro Archives. Soon after, work began on a facility suitable for historical records.
Opened in August of 1986, the Metropolitan Archives held some three million records from the 1800s to the late 20th century. A second building was planned and work began in 1987. In 1988, severe budget reductions within Metropolitan Government halted construction on the nearly completed adjacent building and called for the closure of the archives and the return of thousands of records to the originating departments.
With pressure from Nashville citizens and historical associations, the Archives remained open, continuing on very limited operating hours and with a single staff member throughout 1988-1989. Funding gradually improved, and by 1993 the Metro Archives had recovered to three staff members and operating hours grew to 40 a week.
In 1994, the Archives began active discussions with departments in Metro that maintained historical records. Working with Metro departments and the Davidson County court system, whose enormous volume of historical records provided some interesting challenges for space allocation, the Archives grew to hold over five million records dating from the 1780s.
In 2001, the old Green Hills branch library building was available and the Archives expanded into two facilities. In 2014, the Archives moved the public reference services to the Main Public Library, West Wing, Third Floor. Records not highly active for research are stored in the Elm Hill Pike building and at Metro Southeast. The Archives continues to expand its collections, acquiring records from the 20th and 21st centuries.
Currently the Metropolitan Government Archives maintains collections in three buildings. They operate a digitizing program, conservation program, volunteer program, and the Friends of the Archives group.
With over five million records, the collection includes 50,000 photographs, 30,000 feet of motion picture film, and thousands of feet of audio and video recordings. These represent the collective memory of our city, establishing our identity and linking us to a long and eventful past.
The Metropolitan Government Archives operating hours are Monday-Friday 9:00-6:00, Saturday 9:00-5:00, and Sunday 2:00-5:00.