The founding of The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library was the product of collaboration between two University of South Alabama (USA) history professors, Drs. Melton McLaurin and Michael V. R. Thomason. In 1974 McLaurin, working on an illustrated history of Mobile, enlisted the help of Thomason, who had experience as an amateur photographer, to find images for the book. In searching for photographs, the two found a large collection (ca. 100,000 items) of historic negatives in the basement of the Mobile Public Library. The images had been taken by commercial photographers Erik Overbey and William Reed between about 1880 and 1963. Because the public library did not have the staff or resources to produce reproductions from the negatives, patrons were allowed to check them out for duplication off-site by others. Naturally, negatives were at times returned damaged, broken, or not at all.
Wishing to see the collection more properly cared for and preserved, McLaurin and Thomason approached University of South Alabama administrators and urged them to purchase the collection and establish a photographic archive. They, in turn, asked the city (which controls the public library) to sell the collection to the university. Their efforts were bolstered by the publication of their book entitled Mobile: American River City, which included photographs from the Overbey/Reed collections.
Finally, on May 31, 1978, then USA president Frederick Palmer Whiddon approved a recommendation that created what was then known as the USA Photographic Archives and, with Thomason as its director, the Overbey and Reed collections were transferred to a building located at Brookley Field, a satellite campus of the university situated directly on Mobile Bay. The archives opened in October of that year and donations of other important photograph and manuscript collections followed.
Unfortunately, Brookley was not the best location for an archive. The archives’ building was hard to cool and threatened by storms. Disaster struck in May 1989 when a waterspout hit the Brookley campus. The storm ripped the roof off the archives’ building, putting the collection in danger. Arrangements were made to quickly move the archives to its present location, the Springhill Avenue satellite campus. The feat was accomplished in less than seventy-two hours. The archives re-opened on June 7, 1989.
Since its move to the Springhill campus, the number of collections held by the archives has increased dramatically. You can read more about some of them here. The McCall Library, with over one million negatives, prints, and slides, now holds the largest photograph collection in the region. In 2007, more than fifty of our images were featured in the Ken Burns documentary The War. Our rich photographic history of the city – a place that was greatly affected by World War II – was one reason the award-winning filmmaker gave for including Mobile in his documentary. In the years prior to and after The War the material held by The Library has been used to illustrate or write numerous books, articles, theses, and dissertations, and our photographs have been used for everything from decorating office space to placemats for wedding receptions.
On May 6, 2011, the archives’ name officially changed to The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library after Doy Leale McCall Sr.'s grandchildren donated a valuable and historically significant collection of eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century documents amassed by McCall and valued at $3.1 million. You can read more about that collection here.
The Library has provided numerous university history grad students with practical work experience. On May 31, 2013, The Library celebrated its thirty-fifth year.