Knowing very little about the Schomburg Center before our visit, I found our trip to be highly insightful. From our very friendly and informative tour guide Brian Jones we learned a bit about the history of the Center: how the NYPL Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints–the forerunner to the Schomburg Center proper–acquired Arturo Schomburg’s massive personal collection of books, paintings, and pamphlets in 1926 (and subsequently renamed the division in honor of his legacy), as well as how integral the Center was to become in shaping the life and community of Harlem residents.
It is perhaps in considering this aspect of “community” that I found the most value in our visit. It is easy to imagine archives as being stuffy, self-contained, and hermetically sealed spaces which rarely see visitors or the light of day. In other words, they can tend to foreclose the idea of community rather than invite it. In one sense, the archives at the Schomburg Center are indeed “closed off” like other archives in that there are first steps and procedures one must take in order to access the materials. This is often the case simply for very practical reasons: although they seem to welcome walk-in researchers, one should often contact curators beforehand about specific items one would like to view, simply in order to make sure it is actually on-site and not stored in a warehouse. For certain extremely rare, valuable, or fragile items, there does also seem to be (from what I could gather from the curator of the Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books division) an internal vetting process in order to properly protect the materials.
Despite this, it seems clear that the Schomburg is unlike many other archives in that it is actively devoted to building community and civic engagement. Using the archive as its foundation and its basis, the Center branches out into many ancillary areas of public life. That the Center holds public exhibitions of its archival material (with the current exhibition representing the life and travels of MLK) is a testament to their desire to foster and sustain community engagement. The gallery space acts as an invitation to people of all walks of life, rather than just scholars and academics. Walking into the Schomburg, one notices how bright, airy, and vibrant the space is; people are everywhere chatting, reading, or taking part in community events. Although we didn’t get to tour through it, the Center also contains the Langston Hughes Auditorium in which concerts, forums, lectures, and performances take place. Other tours and events were even being conducted as we were ourselves touring, but we did get the chance to glimpse the American Negro Theater and examine the Cosmogram floor mosaic on our way out.
Overall, our visit to the Schomburg inspired me to continue to think about the ways in which archives can foster, promote, and sustain communities. Although one cannot borrow from the Schomburg’s holdings (being a research library), there is certainly a great deal else from the Center that we can take away with us.