W&L's Lisa McCown Honored for Service to Historic Researchers
In honor of her achievements in historic preservation, Lisa McCown, the senior library assistant in Special Collections at Washington and Lee University’s Leyburn Library, recently received the Ruth Anderson McCulloch Award from the Southern Shenandoah Valley Branch of Preservation Virginia.
“This is only the second time we’ve presented this award in the branch’s history,” said Arthur Bartenstein, the organization’s director, who presented the award. “Lisa is indispensable for any research on Rockbridge County history. By having this outstanding librarian, W&L is providing an extraordinary community service to the state of Virginia and beyond.”
McCown started at W&L’s McCormick Library in 1977 as a student assistant while she was attending Southern Seminary Junior College (now Southern Virginia University) in Buena Vista, from which she graduated in 1978 with a two-year degree. In 1979, she moved into the new library, which was dedicated as Leyburn Library in 1994. She became the assistant to the Special Collections librarian in 1983, providing research assistance to countless historians and anyone who has an interest in the materials held at the library.
“Anybody who walks through the door can ask me anything, and I try to find the answer,” said McCown. “It could be an alumnus, a local person or a scholar. It could be anybody. I love trying to find the answers to their questions. I really enjoy it because I never know what type of question I’ll get. Sometimes people give me a hug when I find something that they’ve been looking for for many years.”
The materials of Special Collections include the holdings of the Rockbridge Historical Society, which comprise a wealth of material on the history of Rockbridge County and a large number of maps and photographs historically significant to Washington and Lee and Rockbridge County. Special Collections is also strong in state and local history and family genealogical history, as well as in material about Robert E. Lee, George Washington and other historical figures important to W&L and the area.
According to Bartenstein, McCown knows the collections so well that she has saved historians a great deal of work through her assistance. In presenting the award, Bartenstein quoted Charles Bodie, author of Remarkable Rockbridge: The Story of a Virginia County (2011: Rockbridge Historical Society), who said that he could not have written his book without McCown’s help.
Bartenstein also said that McCown had been instrumental in his own historical research. “For example, I’m very interested in landscaping, and I was looking for evidence of trees that Robert E. Lee planted on campus,” he said. “Lisa found an old photograph of Robert E. Lee’s funeral, and in the foreground you could see the tiny trees he had planted. Those are the same trees that are there today. And so she helped me demonstrate that connection.”
Bartenstein also noted McCown’s achievement in finding a dozen pages from records of W&L’s Board of Trustees that reference landscaping improvements on campus. “Obscure things like that, Lisa will dig up the information for you,” he said.
The two also worked together on a project to recognize Lewis and Clark’s travels through the Shenandoah Valley. “Lisa looked into what materials might be available to shed some light on that history. We were thinking that Meriwether Lewis might have graduated from Washington and Lee because he’s listed in the alumni directory, but there’s no written proof,” said Bartenstein.
“The extraordinary thing about Lisa is that if you ask her about a particular subject, she’ll not only bring you the book you’re looking for, but nine or 10 other things that might be helpful,” he added. “And it can be tough when people are doing genealogical research that is of no interest to anyone else. So it may be a tedious little project, but Lisa has the patience to plow through these collections and find obscure references. She really goes beyond the call of duty.”