January 26, 2022

The Atlantic on “Black History Archives at Risk”

From The Atlantic:

To preserve Black history, a 19th-century Philadelphian filled hundreds of scrapbooks with newspaper clippings and other materials. But now underfunding and physical decay are putting archives like this one at risk.


Today, other writers and scholars recognize the profound importance of materials such as the Dorsey collection—resources collected and preserved informally by African Americans at a time when white historians claimed that African Americans had no history to speak of. These historians also had little interest in the lives of ordinary people. Though the Dorsey scrapbooks have endured, their preservation and accessibility to scholars who can interpret them are not guaranteed. The small, historically Black institution that owns the scrapbooks has lacked the resources to best house or maintain them. And a partnership between that institution and the predominantly white one that today physically stores the Dorsey collection has never been expanded to ensure needed conservation.


The question of what will happen to the Dorsey scrapbooks is part of a larger question about the archival patrimony of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Some schools struggle with the poor funding that has distinguished them as separate and unequal from the beginning—which for many was in the 1890s, after a federal land grant set aside money for their creation as public institutions. But as the community institutions most responsible for the higher education of Black Americans after emancipation, they embody a sizable chunk of American, African American, educational, and religious history. Inside their archives—even those small archives that specialize in documenting their own institution—are multitudes of stories. And partnering with bigger, powerful, and better-resourced predominantly white institutions comes with a fear of losing de facto control of precious Black cultural resources—seeing the Dorsey scrapbooks, say, become a documentary equivalent of the Elgin marbles.

Read the Complete Article (approx. 3300 words)

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.