Shanee’ Yvette Murrain, Cecily Marcus, Tamar Evangelestia-Dougherty and Kara Tucina Olidge 2017-01-12 15:46:10
The urgency of representing African American history and culture as fully as possible links three related efforts that seek to maximize the impact of African American archives and enable new scholarship. Through radical institutional partnerships, open data, and the use of technology, African American collections are working against centuries of loss and erasure to expand the historical record for students, scholars, and the general public. Each of the following projects presents a unique way to harness technological innovation and collaboration to the benefit of collections that are often marginalized: building a twenty-first-century digital archive by leveraging Internet Archive; aggregating hundreds of thousands of digitized African American documents from more than 1,000 institutions in a single search interface; and expanding the role of funding and collaboration among African American collections locally and nationally. Leveraging Resources The Payne Theological Seminary and African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church Digital Archive project—a collaboration among Payne, Princeton Theological Seminary’s Digital Initiative, and the Internet Archive—demonstrates that relationships thrive where community is built by sharing resources to showcase common interests. In building a digital collection to celebrate Payne’s 122-year history, a radical partnership grew because of three important factors: • Payne recognized that its digitized content has value that extends beyond a local institutional context, and that it lacked resources to build and maintain a digital repository. • Princeton recognized that its investment in developing digital collections benefited more than itself and should be shared, and that it sought a larger corpus of digital content than it could provide on its own. • The Internet Archive recognized that its infrastructure is ideal for building collaborative collections by first hosting individual collections at low cost. In 2014, Payne was awarded a two-year, $150,000 Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Award for the project, resulting in the creation of two collections organized into twenty-one categories of images and records on the history of the A.M.E. Church. Partnering together mitigated costs for all involved, while also exposing participants to new patrons and patrons to new resources. Princeton provided Payne a free platform and the expertise of digital projects staff, while Princeton benefited from Payne’s diverse content. Collaborative outreach efforts for the Payne archives engaged 8,615 users in its first year online, with a 35.7% returning visitor rate, and the homepage of the Payne collection is the most visited site on Princeton’s website. By working with Internet Archive to host the archives, Payne’s historical materials are openly available and able to be aggregated by the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) or Umbra Search African American History (www.umbrasearch.org), thus exposing the content to a far greater audience than any one institution could find on its own. As concerns about metadata and points of discovery for users mounted, Payne sought to partner with Umbra Search to provide increased metadata assistance, new discovery points, and opportunities to create digital exhibits, such as “Black Womanhood in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1897–1916,” for Umbra Search’s blog (umbrasearchblog.org). Increasing Public Access Developed by the Givens Collection of African American Literature at the University of Minnesota Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections, Umbra Search African American History seeks to make African American history broadly accessible through a freely available widget and search tool, by digitizing African American materials across University of Minnesota collections, and by supporting students, educators, artists, and the public through residencies, workshops, and events locally and around the country. To date, Umbra Search brings together more than 400,000 digitized materials from more than 1,000 libraries and archives across the country. The Givens Collection, a rare book and archival collection, has grown through collaboration since its inception in 1985, first as a community partnership between the University of Minnesota and the local African American community. The creation of Umbra Search comes out of another collaboration, this time with Penumbra Theatre Company, the largest continually operating African American theater in the United States, and with hundreds of African American collections and organizations around the country. Umbra Search’s work has centered around four efforts: • To identify and aggregate as much material as possible that documents African American history and culture from individual digital collections dispersed across the internet; • To create an effective search strategy using “a big bag” of more than 2,000 keywords (available on Github); • To develop relationships with institutions via email, phone calls, and meetings so that those who contribute content to DPLA (the source of half of Umbra Search’s content) are aware of the impact of declaring metadata and thumbnail images openly available and so that non-DPLA content can be included as a result of legally binding data sharing agreements, such as with collections at Yale University, Temple University, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst; • To demonstrate via a user-friendly, intuitive website and embeddable widget how a national corpus of African American history materials activates research projects, scholarship, art works, digital exhibits, and other scholarly and creative pursuits. Umbra Search is also deeply marked by what is missing and still left in the umbra—or the shadows—of American history and culture: content that was not valued by institutions, not collected, not identified as relating to African American life, or not digitized. As much as Umbra Search is a resource for scholars, students, writers, and artists, it is also a call to action for more inclusive collection, description, and digitization efforts and for more partnerships to accomplish the work still left to do. Throughout 2017, Umbra Search African American History is cosponsoring a series of public events in Minnesota and nationally to celebrate Umbra Search’s public launch. Get involved at umbrasearchblog.org/events. Building Trust and Transparency Interest in hidden collections first stemmed from the profession’s need to address backlogged (i.e., unprocessed and uncataloged) collections. If one cannot find the collection due to it being unprocessed, one cannot research the collection. Therefore a collection is hidden in the most fundamental sense—and lost from history. Additionally, the term “hidden” can refer to the silenced voices of marginalized communities within processed collections. Increasingly, bringing such collections “out of the shadows” has become associated with professional interest in community archives and partnerships. While many of the first “hidden collections” initiatives centered on single, larger repositories accessing their own backlogs, subsequent initiatives such as the Black Metropolis Research Consortium (BMRC) at the University of Chicago, the Desegregation of Virginia Education project (DOVE), and the DC Africana Archives Project at George Washington University (DCAAP; funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources’ Hidden Collections program), all focused on building partnerships and fostering trust between traditional archival repositories (government, museums, and libraries) and cultural stakeholders such as grassroots community archives. Such collaborative initiatives are beneficial to both the archives and the community as they: • Render the traditional archive a more inclusive space for communities of color; • Respond to emerging funder and donor requests to cast a vision for the future of community archives, which emphasizes collaboration both inside and outside the repository; and • Form partnerships with our communities to shape what we collect and interpret and to reach historically silenced audiences. As community partnerships are strengthened through professional outreach and education, we build a foundation of trust with cultural stakeholders. We will no longer collect, arrange, and describe within a vacuum; we’re meaningfully involving the community as an active participant in achieving true inclusivity. Following the success of the BMRC, DOVE, and DCAAP efforts, funders such as the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) awarded grants for projects that highlight collaboration as a way to sustain projects. Most recently, the IMLS awarded $98,680 to a project on “Diversifying the Digital Historical Record: Integrating Community Archives in National Strategies for Access to Digital Cultural Heritage.” The Amistad Research Center, in collaboration with the Shorefront Legacy Center, the South Asian American Digital Archive, Mukurtu, and Inland Empire Memories at the University of California–Riverside will host a series of public forums focusing on community archives integration with the goal of increasing representation of marginalized communities and people in our national digital cultural heritage. This series of four regional public forums is among the first designed to critically engage in solutions-based conversations around the future of community archives and digital cultural heritage. The project’s first forum, “Definition, Commonalities and Divergences: What are community archives?” took place in October 2016 and was hosted by the University of California, Los Angeles. The three remaining forums (open to the public) will convene in 2017 in New Orleans, Chicago, and New York City. Rewarding and Radical Examining the unique characteristics of each of these partnerships highlighted several common themes. Taking time to develop authentic relationships with partners is the first step in building a collaborative project. Recognizing the value of each partner affords opportunities for sharing resources that remove barriers to access and enhance collection usage. Much of collaborative work is considerably greater than one anticipates: partnerships are developed email after email, phone call upon voicemail; content is identified not through search strategies or finding aids, but through one-on-one conversations with curators and subject librarians. It is commitment to these long processes that makes collaboration rewarding and radical. This article is based on the panel discussion, “Out of the Shadows: Bringing Black Collections Together through Radical Partners” at ARCHIVESRECORDS 2016, the Joint Annual Meeting of the Council of State Archivists and the Society of American Archivists in Atlanta.*
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