Why would you wanna be here? What do you see here? Simple but provocative questions. After the Schomburg Center visit I’ve been mulling over these questions. I took some notes during the course of the visit but those observe what was said. What struck me were some of the things the archivists said: before you visit an archive, search their online catalogs. Familiarize yourself with the collections. Think about what it is you’re looking for when you’re looking through these collections. Once you visit the archivist they’ll have a better an easier time guiding you meaningfully to collections and works that you’re searching for. Cite your sources properly.
What motivates a collection might not be so simple and clear-cut. As we’ve learned during the visit, items get divided up according to the logic of said-archive. The Schomburg has five divisions: a research and reference division, a manuscripts and rare books division, an art and artifacts division, and photographs division. According to this logic, a letter and photograph would not end up in the same division. As we’ve learned a donor’s wishes would supersede the archives organizational logic. A letter may be paired with a photograph in the instance that a donor wishes for it. Keeping these in mind, the Schomburg visit is another reminder that we as researchers working within the archives must think not only about the organizational logic of the curator and institution but the logic of the donor. These instances raise more questions: what motivates donors and archivists to organize their materials in particular ways?
Archivists wants to help. They’re clearly amazing resources. In class we’ve discussed the notion of serendipity in relation to the archives. When searching the Schomburg Center’s online catalog I had no clear-cut goal—I serendipitously wandered the collections that emerged within the homepage. I couldn’t find everything I wanted. The visit reminded me—and taught me—that the archivist is an invaluable resource. Their knowledge and experience navigating the archives can aid us in our own projects.
Reflecting on the Schomburg Center visit, I realize there’s a need to understand the history and objective of said archives. The Schomburg Center collects and preserves materials focused on African American, African diaspora, and African experiences. It goes back to my initial question on why anyone would want to explore materials housed at the Schomburg Center. Scholars and researchers interested in the African American experience and cultural history would definitely find a reason to study materials here.
Although I spent some time at the Schomburg Center several years ago doing research on a West African language as part of a second BA that I did at Lehman College, I had only a vague idea of the goals and subject area coverage of this institution. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture began in 1925 as the Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints, a special collection within the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library. The following year this was augmented by the sale of thousands of books, manuscripts and pamphlets collected by Arthur Schomburg to the collection.
I am embarrassed to admit that until last week I assumed that Schomburg was a white benefactor who supported Afro-American causes. So, I am glad that I started off the Q & A period with the question, “Who exactly was Schomburg?” It turns out that Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (1874-1938) was a Puerto Rican of mixed African and German heritage who immigrated to the United States in the 1891 and who gravitated to the African American cultural scene that was developing in Harlem, particularly at the 135th Street public library branch. The initial impetus for his life’s work of collecting documents of Black Africans at home and in diaspora was his seminal encounter in his youth with a school teacher who told him that blacks had no accomplishments or leaders to be worthy of study. During his time in New York City, Schomburg was an active participant in Harlem literary and dramatic activities (often centered around the old building of the 135th Street Library) and independence movements for Puerto Rico and Cuba. He served as curator of the collection he helped create (1926-1930) and as curator of the Negro Collection at the Fisk University library (1931-32).
During the curators’ presentations we gained greater exposure to (and awareness of) the various aspects of the Schomburg’s multimedia collections. I particularly found myself thinking of ways to tag and link the WWI soldier photo collection (some of which have name labels) to be displayed in an enriched format in a database related to other archives and GIS-based platforms. The two “take away” ideas from the presentations that I want to explore more are the use of “Archive It” to capture websites and maximizing use of “finding aides” for multimedia search in consultation with an archivist. One recurrent theme that struck me from our site visit was the explosion of black writing and publishing after 1865 among a population where literacy had often been restricted, in a manner analogous to the patterns that I saw in the Colored Conventions Project website.
Before we left the Schomburg, we were lucky enough to get a brief peek inside the old 135th Street branch library and see the stage of the American Negro Theater established in 1940 and to examine the “Cosmogram” floor mosaic over Langston Hughes’ ashes which helps to connect the old branch library and the modern research center.