“Mr. North Carolina” closes the book after a 40-year career

May 19, 2021

By Laura J. Toler

The North Carolina Collection in the Wilson Special Collections Library holds more than 300,000 books. Robert Anthony, the collection’s curator, can pick out just the one someone needs.

“On many occasions I’ve asked Bob a tough North Carolina-related question,” says John Blythe, collection assistant curator. “He says, ‘Follow me,’ and leads me into the stacks to the publication that answers my question exactly. Bob rarely even needs to check the catalog for the call number.”

Door with text "curator North Carolina collection"

Bob Anthony, curator of the North Carolina Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill University Libraries, seen through his office door in the Wilson Special Collections Library

Such is the knowledge of the man who has given 40 years to the storied collection.

“When Bob retires on May 31, the Library, and the entire state of North Carolina, will lose a dedicated, knowledgeable and model state employee,” says Elaine L. Westbrooks, vice provost for University Libraries and University librarian. “Few people are more versed in the history, culture and literature of the state than Bob. He responds to all inquiries with generosity of spirit and gentle humor.”

Anthony has been key in building what is thought to be the nation’s largest library collection devoted to a single state. In his 27 years as curator, it grew from thousands to millions of books, pamphlets, dissertations, journals, postcards, maps, manuscripts, reels of microfilm, photos, newspapers and more. Photos alone grew from about 300,000 to 4.1 million.

Anthony deflects all praise onto his staff: “I have been fortunate to be among really good people, and I find myself trying to keep up with them.”

Yet he has led several key initiatives, chief among them the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center, which digitizes, preserves and shares newspapers, scrapbooks and other items that are held in libraries, museums and other entities around the state.

María Estorino, associate University librarian for special collections, director of Wilson Library and Anthony’s supervisor, says the center is indicative of his service to the state: “Bob is truly committed to the University’s mission as a public university and the ethos that we are ‘of the public, for the public.’”

Anthony also edits the Coates University Leadership Series, funded by a bequest from Gladys Coates. With her husband, Albert, Coates founded the University’s Institute of Government, now the School of Government. The series publishes biographical studies of the University’s presidents and chancellors.

“The purpose is to focus on how each individual’s personality and leadership style impacted the history of the University,” Anthony says.

He has coordinated exhibitions of the collection’s photographs shown around the state, showcasing the work of legendary North Carolina photographers including Hugh Morton, whose 250,000 images Anthony brought into the Library. He also negotiated with owners of the Durham Herald-Sun to get its photos — about 1.6 million covering 1945-2002.

Anthony is proud that the exhibitions have reached people who may never come to Chapel Hill. “We want the people to know that the collection belongs to them and discover the many ways it is about them, too,” he once told the University Gazette, which dubbed him “Mr. North Carolina.”

“Like a maître d’”

Longtime friend D.G. Martin, host of “North Carolina Bookwatch” on WUNC-TV, has called Anthony many times for help.

“He connected me to North Carolina’s literary elite and many organizations such as the Thomas Wolfe Society and campus figures,” Martin says. “Those connections have been an important help.”

Martin says that when it comes to North Carolina, Anthony knows what’s going on statewide: “He knows the major actors and then, like a maître d’ in a restaurant, he brings us all together for a fine meal. He’s the organizer. He goes all over the state to connect with people.”

Anthony grew up in Hobgood, a town of 600 in Halifax County, the second child of four. His father, the longtime mayor, farmed and ran a service station, where Anthony sometimes worked. His mother taught except when raising children. There was no library, so a summer bookmobile was a welcome sight for a boy who loved to read. In school, he gravitated toward history and English.

He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree, cum laude, in history at Wake Forest University in 1975, and work in the state Office of Archives and History. He left to pursue a master’s in library science at Carolina, completed in 1982.

It was as a graduate student, in 1979, that Anthony first worked for the North Carolina Collection, then as a reference associate until 1985, when he left briefly for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. The very next year he returned to the collection, and in 1994, he become only the fourth curator in its history.

Anthony’s service has been marked by leadership roles in more than 20 organizations, including the Historical Society of North Carolina (past president), the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association (past president), the North Carolina Writers Conference (of which he co-authored a history, and which honored him for service to the state’s literary community) and the Thomas Wolfe Society, which awarded him a citation of merit.

Lindsay Fulenwider and Bob Anthony

Lindsay Fulenwider and Bob Anthony with items from the Thomas Wolfe collection in Wilson Library. October 18, 2017. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Anthony has been named a distinguished alumnus by the School of Information and Library Science and received the University’s C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award in 2019.

A skilled writer, Anthony has contributed to books and journals including the North Carolina Historical Review, the Encyclopedia of North Carolina and the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography.

Ever humble, Anthony, who plans to read and travel in retirement, wasn’t keen on this profile: “I’d much prefer taking my leave quietly, appreciating the many great experiences and opportunities the Library has given me in my 40 years.”

But his colleagues wouldn’t let him leave without recognition.

Bob Anthony

Bob Anthony, curator of the North Carolina Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill University Libraries, walking out the front doors of the Wilson Special Collections Library (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

“He treats everyone — co-workers, students, visitors — with empathy and tireless dedication,” Westbrooks says. “Though he is retiring, service to the state is part of Bob’s DNA. North Carolinians will benefit from his knowledge and advocacy for years to come.”

Congratulations and thank you, Bob!

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32 comments on ““Mr. North Carolina” closes the book after a 40-year career
  1. Holly Roper says:

    Congratulations, Bob! It was an honor to work with you during my time at Wilson Library. I hope that your retirement is filled with fun, relaxation, and many books.

  2. Congratulations Bob! The help you gave me when writing Nags Headers was so important to the book. And that was icing on the cake because I had known you for so long. Beat of luck as you retire, and thank you for your lifelong service to our state.

  3. Scott Huler says:

    Bob has been an enormous, a vast help to me in more projects than I can count. My books and stories have been better and better researched and better sourced because of Bob. I am immensely grateful, not just for my own selfish satisfaction but for the great value he leaves behind him for all the people of North Carolina. Thanks, Bob. Hope to see you around just the same.

  4. Jim Clark says:

    I’ve spent most of my adult life in North Carolina and I can honestly say that getting to know Bob has been a highlight of my time here. Time spent in his company is always not only pleasant, but profitable. North Carolina thanks you for your devoted service, Bob. “Mr. North Carolina” is apt.

  5. Charles F Blackburn says:

    Happy trails to you, Bob. You have been a force for good for 40 years. And I am proud to call you a friend.

  6. Dannye Powell says:

    Bob — You put Lew Powell and his political buttons on the map, literally and figuratively. We owe you a great debt and huge thanks!
    Dannye Powell

  7. Kathy James says:

    Bob, Wishing you the best in the future. So many owe you for your years of dedicated service to writing and books!

  8. Congratulations, Bob! I am one of the many who owe you for the guidance, advice, and help you’ve offered over the years. Thanks for your service. I’m proud to call you a friend.

  9. Faye Dasen says:

    Best wishes, Bob!

  10. Kevin Watson says:

    Congratulations, Bob! Enjoy retirement. I’ll stay in touch.

  11. Happy Retirement Bob!
    It has been delightful and an honor to work with you throughout the years. I am grateful for all your support. Much wonderment and joy!

  12. Laurie Norman says:

    Congratulations, Bob!
    The University has been so fortunate to have a Priceless Gem like you to devote a career to gathering and sharing knowledge about our beloved state.
    I have missed seeing you on campus the last 15 months but I hope our paths will cross again during your retirement.
    Hark the Sound!

  13. Kay M Anthony Bell says:

    Congratulations to my brother! Oh the stories I could tell as your baby sister! I expect a REALLY nice Christmas present for not sharing!

  14. Jackie Fleming says:

    Congratulations Bob and a happy retirement. I have a question I’ve been meaning to ask, but never made it to Chapel Hill. Maybe in the future….

  15. Jo Ann Bland Josey says:

    Congratulations Bob. Hope you have many exciting adventures during retirement.

  16. Linda Muir says:

    Congratulations, Bob. I have known you most of my life, and no one is more deserving of the recognition you have received.
    Please enjoy that retirement!

  17. Wanda Harris Akers says:

    Don’t go to Waco !!!!!

  18. Anne Purvis says:

    Bob, I have known you for over 50 years and I am so proud of you. You are very special to our family. Hard to believe you are retiring but, you deserve it. Come back home to Hobgood and help get our precious town organized!! Congratulations!!!

  19. Jeffery Beam says:

    Congratulations, Bob, on your well-deserved retirement – although all of us who know you and of your love of all things North Carolina, know that retirement will not mean you are retiring your pursuits to broadcast, celebrate, enliven, and enrich our heritage. I remain eternally grateful to you for the support you have given me while we were colleagues in the library, but most of all as a North Carolina author. Stanley and I send you good wishes for a delightful and adventurous life ahead.

  20. Eleanor Cook says:

    HI Bob, You and I have been together our entire careers … both graduating from the MSLS program at UNC in 1982, so many times our paths have crossed, and I too am retiring in June of this year. I wish you all the best, everything said here about you is so true. Your gracious charm and knowledge of all things NC has been such a contribution to our state. Congratulations and see you on the other side! Eleanor Cook.

  21. Julie Brown Rawls says:

    Congratulations,Bob! What an amazing career dedicated to the State of North Carolina. Wishing you lots of fun travels and adventures in the years ahead.

  22. Debra Kaufman says:

    Bob, you have left such an amazing legacy for all NC citizens to enjoy, scholars and everyday folks. Your generosity to and recognition of writers, musicians, storytellers, is a gift for the centuries. May you enjoy your time to retire and recharge.

  23. Marsha Warren says:

    Hi Bob, it’s been such a pleasure to work with you through all these years with the NC Writers’ Network, the Paul Green Foundation and the NC Writers Conference. You’ve been our guiding light through many queries and questions. Thank you for shepherding the digitation of the Paul Green Papers and Foundation files at the Southern. Warmest wishes in your retirement – I’m enjoying mine immensely. Marsha

  24. Laurence Avery says:

    Bob, I’ve read all of these heartfelt and much deserved tributes to you, which I agree with. So I will simply say, best wishes for your retirement.

  25. ruth moose says:

    Ah Bob, thank you so much for all you have done for writers in North Carolina in so many large and small ways. I know you were behind the scenes getting Doris Betts papers back home. Bless you. For that and a thousand other things. ruth moose

  26. Grace Aaron says:

    Kudos for faithfully imparting NC lore on the Tar Heel Bus Tour! I will miss walking past that vintage door with “CURATOR..NC COLLECTION” and singing inside my head, “Bob An-tho-ny, Bob Antho-ny! What a beautiful, beautiful name!” to the same tune to which Barbra Streisand sang,”Nicky Arnstein, Nicky Arnstein, What a beautiful, beautiful name!” in “Funny Girl.”

  27. Cliff says:

    Bob, or as I call you (you being two years older), my “age pioneer,” I’ll never forget asking you your senior year in high school where you were going to college and you telling me you’d been accepted at Wake Forest, to which I laconically responded, “Where’s that?” And the next thing I know I end up graduating from there myself! It was the same way with books, ideas and tact—always a positive influence despite our divergent politics. Moreover, you are the only person I know to have gone from changing tires in a gas station to giving the best interview I’ve ever heard on William Friday’s “North Carolina People.” If I ever get my book of poems published and am interviewed by D. G. Martin, I’ll certainly have to bring you along—to do all the talking. I think I speak for the entire community when I say, “Can’t wait to see you back at the homeplace! Welcome home!”

  28. Howard E. Covington Jr says:

    North Carolina’s story has had no more faithful and courageous a champion than Bob Anthony. He has exemplified the very essence of the word curator. Thank you, Bob, for caring about the continued development and accessibility of one of the state’s most valuable resources, its history.

  29. Cynthia Floyd says:

    Bob, thank you so much for all of your years of quality service to NC. Your mom was my 5th grade teacher and helped set me on a path in education and state employment, as well. Wishing you the best on your retirement.

  30. Bob, your warm welcome, encouragement, and support through the years following my appointment to the UNCA Special Collections, continues to be deeply appreciated by me. You and your staff modeled the quality of service and the breadth of joy in the local that I valued and continue to value even in retirement. I wish you exciting new journeys and fulfilling quiet times.

  31. It has been such a great pleasure to know and work with you on so many things. You have done so much for the state of North Carolina and we also appreciate all you’ve particularly done for Weymouth. All the very best to you Bob!

  32. Gary Fenton Barefoot says:

    Bob, I join many other friends in wishing you well in retirement. Having worked as a student assistant in the NC Collection, I know the value of such a special collection and during your tenure as its head, you have added greatly to its resources and services. As a friend, I will just say, “Proud to know you!”