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Organizing Hidden Collections for Umbra Search African American History

Words by Dorothy Berry


Photograph in Indoor activities, 1940s-1970s. Harlem YMCA Photographs. YMCA of Greater New York. Kautz Family YMCA Archives. University of Minnesota Libraries.

A common refrain I’ve heard over the past year is that it’s so surprising a mass digitization project on African American history would be coming out of the University of Minnesota. There is some heavy mental furniture about where Black history exists. Southern collections? Of course. Chicago, New York, other Northern destinations for the Great Migration? Without a doubt. By organizing perceptions of where African American history lives into a select few geographical areas, archivists and researchers have tacitly agreed with the idea that African American stories are isolated, loose hanging historical threads, as opposed to major part of the warp and weave of American life from the first.

As part of a Council on Library Resources (CLIR)-funded Hidden Collections grant, I have spent the past year surfacing archival materials across every collecting unit in the University of Minnesota Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections department. From the Charles Babbage Institute to the Owen H. Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, in the past twelve months over a quarter of a million items have been scanned, representing 100 discrete collections, and growing. While Minnesota may not traditionally be thought of as a hub of African American cultural life, this deep collections dive has revealed both a rich local history and a surprising richness of national holdings. These discoveries will be made discoverable through Umbra Search African American History, a digital archives aggregator created by the University of Minnesota Libraries to bring together African American archival materials from across the United States.

Even some of the most unexpected corporate collections have yielded valuable additions to the project.

Negatives in Photograph Collection, 1949-1963. (Box 20, Negative 5654 & Negative 5810). Burroughs Corporation Records (CBI 90), Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota Libraries.

Collections of “ephemera” and “miscellany” led to some of the most engaging discoveries. This small photograph of Thomas Wiggins, a nationally renowned enslaved African American pianist and composer, was most likely taken when he was around 12 years old in 1861.

Ephemera. Thomas "Blind Tom" Wiggins, c. 1861. Givens Collection Ephemera. Givens Collection of African American Literature. University of Minnesota Libraries.

Increasing diversity in our archival collections has become an increasingly hot topic in the past years, and for good reason. I’ve heard from friends and colleagues that they love archives but are tired of working with endless linear feet documenting the lived experiences of a variety of dead white men. University of Minnesota’s African American Hidden Collections project, a part of the larger Umbra Search program, has revealed another avenue to increasing collections’ diversity: opening our eyes to the materials we’ve already collected. Umbra Search is envisioned as a dynamic program unifying archival scholarship, performing arts presentations, and collections access efforts. By working towards these goals on multiple fronts, including the hidden collections work of this project, Umbra Search strives to activate interest in African American history by putting Black archival materials at the forefront.

The key step to this new way of looking at and for African American collections has been the advent of digital collections. As more and more users explore archives online, respect des fonds takes on a different role. The single file on an African American summer camp in the midst of one thousand files on the life and times of a White 19th century recreation activist used to be discoverable only by the sort of researcher with the time and access to dig deeply in finding aids and even deeper in the minds of curators and archives who kept most of their detailed metadata in their heads.

In a context where a search for “‘African American’ AND ‘summer’” brings the research with the sole result that single folder as a digital object, the barriers to access have been shifted, but more importantly the primacy of the majority narrative has been shifted. In the physical space of the archive, the organizational structure favors the record keeping of  institutions and individuals who historically privileged White memory keeping. By loosening that structure in a digital setting with results organized from the researcher’s query, as opposed to the received ‘original order,’ entirely new frameworks of receiving Black history are created.

Photographs like these are useful as educational tools, but are also deeply useful on a personal level, allowing users to relate to the lived experiences of African American people through time.

Photograph in Indoor activities, 1940s-1970s. Harlem YMCA Photographs. YMCA of Greater New York. Kautz Family YMCA Archives. University of Minnesota Libraries. Poster in General and Topical Files. Colored Men's Work, Conference, undated, 1898, 1901, 1911-1940.  Kautz Family YMCA Archives. University of Minnesota Libraries.

An example of this sort of “collection within a collection,” came during my search through the Kautz Family YMCA Archives, specifically the Student Work Records collection. This collection documents the work of YMCA branches at colleges and universities across the United States from the mid 19th century, through the 1970s. The bulk of the collection consists of folders detailing work at individual institutions, divided up by state. For a researcher with a knowledge of research methods and the U.S. educational system, the finding aid contains all the information anyone could need; there’s a rich history detailing the work of the Student YMCA movement, with subjects covering the bulk of the collection, and references to related materials. For someone without that background, however, there’s a list of the 50 states (and Canadian provinces), with a potentially overwhelming number of entries for each state. A project like this allows me to selectively digitize the records of HBCUs, craft metadata that describes the Student Work Movement, while writing in plain language “this folder specifically includes materials from Grambling State, a Historically Black College/University.”

The Social Welfare History Archives has been a wellspring of materials. These images come from a series of over 30 boxes of USO photographs ranging from the 1940s throughout the Vietnam War.

Photographs. War Work. USO Club. Meetings and Conferences, Photographs. War Work. USO Club. United States, North Carolina, Fayetteville, Photographs. War Work. USO Club. Racial-Ethnic Groupings. YWCA National Board, United Service Organizations records, Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries.

By providing description at a different level through a different venue, targeted hidden collections projects can create artificial collections that highlight the experiences of specific marginalized groups, while not disturbing the traditional archival organization of the physical materials themselves. Hopefully this project will inspire other universities to look deeply inside their own collections for the materials we’ve been hiding, instead of blaming the lack of diverse representation on collection development budgets and geographical vaugeries. By exploring and making accessible the richness of our collections, universities across the country can make a statement that African American history is American history- and we have the records to prove it.

Dorothy Berry is the digitization and metadata lead for Umbra Search African American History at the University of Minnesota. Her work has focused on the intersections of information science and African American history and has included research on nineteenth-century Black performing arts in the digital archives, exhibit creation for the Black Film Center/Archive and the Archives of African American Music and Culture, object conservation for the National Museum of African American History and Culture Smithsonian, and digital resource creation for the Ozarks Afro-American History Museum. She is currently Co-Chair of SAA's Archives and Archivists of Color Section. 

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