Historian and editor William T. Alderson was born and raised in Schenectady, New York. After service in the navy during World War II, he graduated from Colgate University in 1947. He then entered the graduate program in history at Vanderbilt University, where he earned his master's degree and completed the Ph.D. in 1952. His dissertation was a study of the Freedmen's Bureau in Virginia.
Entering a tight job market, Alderson vainly sought a full-time teaching position on the college level. As an alternative, he accepted a senior archivist's position at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. His abilities as a historian and strong people skills resulted in his rapid advancement and appointment to key positions. In 1956 he was named editor of the Tennessee Historical Quarterly, and the following year he assumed the duties of executive secretary of the Tennessee Historical Society. In 1959 he was named assistant state librarian and archivist and then assumed the state's senior position two years later.
In 1964 Alderson began to rise in national prominence in the field of public history. The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin, asked him to serve as its director. Alderson agreed to accept the job under one condition: AASLH would have to move its headquarters to Nashville. The AASLH board accepted Alderson's condition and moved the organization south. During the next fourteen years Alderson elevated AASLH to the nation's most important professional organization for historical societies and museums. During his tenure AASLH conducted scores of educational programs, issued hundreds of publications, set high standards for museums of all sizes, and saw its membership numbers increase severalfold.
In 1978 Alderson left Nashville to return to academe as the director of the museum studies program at the University of Delaware. Four years later he was appointed to the directorship of the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum in Rochester, New York, a position he held until being named president of Old Salem in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1986.
Alderson officially retired from Old Salem in 1991, but he continued a decades-long commitment to professional involvement until the day he died. During his career he served as an officer in a number of organizations including the American Association of Museums, the American Records Management Association, and the Mid-Atlantic Museums Association. In 1992 he became director of the Seminar for Historical Administration in Williamsburg, the longest running continuing education program in the country for advanced museum professionals. Several months prior to conducting his fourth seminar, Alderson died in his sleep, leaving his wife of forty-four years, the former Sylvia C. Farrell, and two grown children.