Finding Aids, Secondary Sources, and Revised Questions

Finding Aids:

Initially I had a little difficulty finding a Finding Aid that resulted in any leads. I first tried the Virginia Historical Society website, which provided finding aids for manuscripts and archives, but came across nothing related to my research. I then tried the Virginia Tech Special Collections Manuscript Guide, and came across the papers from a few families that may or may not be of some use. Finally, I went to Google and typed in “Saltville Virginia Finding Aid” and stumbled upon the “Guide to the Smyth County, Virginia Lifetime Collection, 1833-1991” in the Belk Library Special Collections at Appalachian State. There are a number of boxes in the collection that are referred to as “Saltville Papers” and could be very helpful resources. Though I made a little progress, I believe I need to hone my Finding-Aid-finding skills.


Secondary Sources:

Kent, William B. A History of Saltville, Virginia. Radford, Virginia: Commonwealth Press, 1955.

The first source I reviewed this week was A History of Saltville, Virginia, by William B. Kent. The book is broken down thematically, transitioning topic by chapter. Kent prefaces by stating that, “In compiling these notes relative to Saltville, no literary skill is attempted” and that “the book record was requested by those who read some of the stories published in the local newspapers a few years ago”[1] This note leads me to believe that Kent was perhaps a local historian that produced this book purely for the purpose of serving his surrounding community. However, he does acknowledge several others who have written similar histories, and hopefully these names will provide leads that I can follow to larger source bases.

Of particular interest was chapter 23, “A Catastrophe”, in which Kent outlines the Christmas Eve disaster of 1924 and provides a brief picture of the actions taken by witnesses.

Kent does not include notes or a bibliography, but hopefully I will be able to access some of the sources he utilizes by tracking down the contributors from his preface.


Baum, Andrew, Raymond Fleming, and Laura M. Davidson. “Natural Disaster and Technological Catastrophe.” Environment and Behavior 15, no. 3 (May 1, 1983): 333–54.

The second source I read this week was “Natural Disaster and Technological Catastrophe” by Andrew Baum, Raymond Fleming, and Laura M. Davidson. While the authors are actually trained in Medical Psychology, their article is significant in that it introduces and analyzes the concept of “technological catastrophe” in comparison with natural disasters. “Technological catastrophes” are defined as “events that are human made in that they are accidents, failures, or mishaps involving the technology and manipulation of the natural environment that we have created to support our standard of living.[2]” The premise of the article is that these catastrophes are not only inherently different than natural disasters, but also potentially more detrimental to the societies they affect.

The authors are concerned with the psychological effects of such catastrophes, however, for the purposes of my paper, the concept of “technological catastrophe” is useful for describing the type of disaster event that occurred and provides an analytical framework within which I can assess the effects of the disaster on the community.


Revised Question:

Following class discussion last week, I reconsidered the questions I was posing for my project and made a few revisions.

First, I have decided to move forward with the Saltville Disaster of 1924 (although I need to decide on the exact name, as it has gone down in history as “The Christmas Eve Disaster” and “The Palmertown Tragedy”).

Additionally, I considered what Dr. Jones said about making assumptions within our questions. I had not even considered that the simple questions I asked were taking certain aspects of my topic for granted or already presuming certain outcomes of my research.

My initial questions were:

How did the __(name)__ disaster of _(year)_ transform the community of _(area in which disaster occurred)_? Additionally, who was most susceptible to this event and what contributed to their vulnerability? 

After a little review, I have revised them:

How did the Saltville Disaster of 1924 impact Saltville and its surrounding communities? Additionally, were there any specific groups of people that were disproportionately susceptible to this event and if so, what contributed to their vulnerability? 

In discovering the answers to these questions, I will be able to come to conclusions about vulnerability in Saltville before/during/after this disaster. Only once I have answered the questions will I be able to make broader statements about the relationship of the Saltville Disaster to a larger disaster culture.

[1] Kent, preface.

[2] Baum, 334.

7 thoughts on “Finding Aids, Secondary Sources, and Revised Questions”

  1. If the App State collection doesn’t have a finding aid, you might contact the archivist there to see if they have more information on what’s in the collection.
    I’d also suggest trying a search in ArchiveGrid.
    Re your question, definitely more openended than the first. What do you hope the Saltville story will add to our understanding of “larger disaster culture?” Something you’ll be thinking about as you move back and forth between primary and secondary readings. “Technological disaster” is an interesting concept — is it used by other researchers?

  2. Hi Carmen,

    It sounds like you are making progress!

    I’m so interested in your topic, especially the company in charge of the town, I went searching a bit. You’ve probably seen this but thought I would pass it along just in case.

    Harvard Business School archives has a little on Mathieson Chemical Corportation as well as a pamphlet Mathieson produced concerning their history.

    “Note: Baker Library (Harvard Business School Library) holds a copy of Fifty Years of Chemical Progress, 1892-1942: The Mathieson Alkali Works, Inc. (call number Baker Old Class GT :612 M43). This long pamphlet was written for Mathieson and contains historical information and photos.”

    Happy Hunting! or mining or looking or discovering or…..

  3. Dr. Jones,

    I will definitely take a look at ArchiveGrid, thank you.

    Also, I hope to find that the Saltville case study connects or makes parallels to a larger disaster culture that exists in the United States (and perhaps elsewhere) that creates and perpetuates patterns of disproportionate vulnerability for minorities/lower classes. Not only does this speak to disaster culture but also to American culture in general, and would offer insight into the priorities of institutions and power in the United States.

  4. Faith,

    You are always so helpful! I will definitely take a look at the site. I have spent a little time looking into Mathieson Alkali Works, but have mainly looked at it at a part of the larger Olin Corporation. This will be helpful in getting a sense of what the role and impact of Mathieson was. Thank you!

  5. I’m glad you chose Saltville – it seemed like a very strong interest for you. I also feel like you keep getting closer and closer to your final project question! I do have a suggestion to help you with sources: I’m not sure who it is, but contact our library and see if there is a librarian there that specializes in social / cultural / spacial history that can give you some direction — sometimes people are the best “finding aids”! They’re usually very nice as well!

    Looking forward to seeing how this continues to evolve!

  6. Hi Carmen,

    It sounds like you are making good progress! I’m interested in what counts as a technological catastrophe. I understand that these are disasters resulting from something that is man-made, so of course Saltville is an example, and I am assuming Chernobyl, etc. But what about something where a natural disaster led to a breach of man-made structures? Were there some natural forces that led to the dam being vulnerable in Saltville as well? These questions are motivated by my own curiosity more than anything…

    But also, what do you mean by disaster culture?


    1. Interesting question, Claire. I read Carmen’s words and assumed I knew what she meant, but perhaps I was imposing my own definition on “disaster culture.”

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