1st week on the new job

If you keep up with me on social media you know I started a new job this week: manuscripts librarian at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center of Howard University. I opened my window back in September and a wind blew this opportunity into my field of vision. I went to their HR site and posted a resume and cover letter, and, long and short of it, got called for an interview in January shortly after returning from our Christmas vacation in Bissau. A week or two later, I got the offer call from HR, but I was in my car driving back from a trip to Woodberry Forest School and reception was spotty. We connected the following day and I asked for a couple of days before deciding to get my affairs in order. I reported in this week for a day of orientation, but of course Monday was a federal holiday and Wednesday was a snow day. So my first week was a short one.

The walk to Founders Library is uphill. That is a metaphor and a reality. My legs take it better than my heart, but each day gets easier. More in a post next week on Howard’s very unique history and just who these founders were.

My boss is the head librarian and curator. She’s been showing me the ropes, taking me to all the secret places where collections are stored. Let me tell you, the place is awesome, the staff is awesome, I am awe-struck by it all. Might be a standard response for week 1. There is a lot of dirty work to be done, sorting through and processsing collections, relocating pallets of boxes, and exploring campus and commercial storage sheds. Next week I’ve been advised to come in with jeans and steel-toed shoes! It goes with the territory, ossos do oficio as my Portuguese-speaking friends would say.

The highlight of week #1 was most certainly the viewing of the Daniel Payne Murray collection. By all appearances, it’s just a wall full of books in a room that has been repurposed several times. But for those who know, Daniel Murray was the leading bibliographer of books written by and about African Americans at the turn of the century (early 1900’s). He began his life in the 1870’s as a waiter in the capital dining room but reached the height of his career as the primary assistant to the Librarian of Congress. Woodrow Wilson, in repayment of a political debt that helped him get elected, pushed through legislation that reversed many of the gains made during Reconstruction, and more specifically to Murray’s career, passed a federal law which said, in effect, no African American would be allowed to supervise a white worker. Murray was demoted, but continued working at the Library of Congress for a total of 52 years. Read more about Murray in an interview I preserved on my LoC Docent blog here.

Here’s an iconic photo from my first week:

And here are some shots from the MSRC reading room:

Returning to CUA – the 11th annual Bridging the Spectrum Symposium

Yesterday I returned to Catholic University for the 11th annual Bridging the Spectrum symposium. It’s my fourth time attending in the six years of my association with CUA. Three times I have presented, either on a panel or as a poster presenter.

Going back to the campus is always like a religious pilgrimage for me. I remember the very first time I visited the campus, back in 2012, to attend an information session for the Library and Information Science graduate program. I remember being struck by the cruxifixes on walls, and by the pro-life campus event announcements on bulletin boards. I thought to myself, “Wow, these folks are serious about their religion.” Then there is the huge colorful dome on top of the cathedral, the Basilica, also known as the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. What an amazing sight that thing is, visible from all points on campus.

Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

The campus became a place of refuge for me, a safe harbor from the storm just outside her gates. 2013. But that’s a different story. Maybe even a different blog altogether! Meanwhile, back to the story.

For the morning session, I attended the Information Organization panel discussion. One of the presenters focused on documenting and archiving performance, and though she talked primarily about dance (she is the archivist for a dance company in New York). Of course I applied it to dramatic production and my work with the August Wilson American Century Cycle. A second presenter, from the Library of Congresss, talked about extracting metadata from print-only serials from Africa. The presenter and I had three institutional connections: SOAS, Howard University, and the Library of Congress. Plus my previous experiences in African countries. We had a lot to talk about after the session.

I was a bit late for the afternoon session because I spent too much time talking with poster presenters and old friends after lunch. Many of the posters were quite excellent and I hope they get posted on the CUA website so i can link to them later. The ones that really stood out for me were the following: Rethinking Library Services for First-Generation Students; Creating and Using a Library Diversity Statement; Linking Liszt: Strategies for Improving Acccess to Classical Music in Consumer Platforms; Relieving Library Anxiety: the Application of Relationshhip Marketing to Libraries; Combatting “Fake News” Through Deepening Our Philosophical Roots; and Not Just Bitcoin; Applications of Distributed Databases for the Information Professions.

In the afternoon, I attended the Digital Collections sessions. Interesting presentations, to be sure, but after investing so much psychic energy into the morning sessions and the lunchtime poster session, I was pretty much exhausted. In the closing session, a guy did a parody on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, relating it to work in libraries and archives. He covered the WHOLE poem! You know, as much as I LOVE Edgar Allan Poe, it was just too much!

I ran into an old classmate who has joined forces with her mother to provide archiving and library solutions to associations. It is just the thing I am beginning to do with small marginalized black communities, helping them to preserve their community memories in the form of micro- and mini-historical societies. We had a great conversations and I was able to pick up some tips. Of course, she is making money at it and I barely meet expenses. Ha! Maybe that will change in the new dispensation. I look forward to keeping in touch with them both.

It was great seeing classmates, colleagues, former professors. A successful pilgrimage indeed!

Farewell to Garrett Park

Next week will be my last week as town archivist for the Town of Garrett Park, Maryland. This past Monday I put in my two week notice. Resignation notice conversations can be difficult, but this one was quite civilized.

I have a “next assignment” and I am quite excited about it. I won’t divulge it tonight because it’s bad luck to talk about these things too soon. But as soon as I am firmly in the saddle I will share my coordinates with you all. We will remain in the District of Columbia, where we enjoy all the benefits of disenfranchisement and taxation without representation.

Garrett Park has been the “lone arranger” experience that I was looking for, and more. I was at all times aware of the tremendous efforts of generations of town clerks, town secretaries, archivists, and volunteers before me who got the place running and kept it running. My Garrett Park experience also gave me insight into establishing an archives consultancy practice – how to value my effort and why advocacy is so important. I am immensely grateful for both experiences – one really can’t ask for more. Garrett Park is a lily white town with a rich cultural history. Too bad so many of the current residents don’t really appreciate the value of the legacy they have inherited or purchased into. It is so much more than a collection of houses in a tony part of Montgomery County.

I am leaving the campsite cleaner and more orderly than I found it. The old Boy Scout standard. The place is in good shape and the volunteers will keep things on track until the next archivist is hired. Farewell, and as my father would say, “don’t take no wooden nickels.”


A day off to visit the Library of Congress

As a Library of Congress docent, I get advanced notice of special programs at the world’s greatest library. So when I got word of the special program opening the Omar Ibn Said Collection, I quickly adjusted my schedule and came in on one of my off days in order to devote a whole day to the event.

From the loc.gov site, “The Omar Ibn Said Collection consists of 42 digitized documents in both English and Arabic, including an 1831 manuscript in Arabic on “The Life of Omar Ibn Said,” a West African slave in America, which is the centerpiece of this unique collection of texts. Some of the manuscripts in this collection include texts in Arabic by another West African slave in Panama, and others from individuals located in West Africa.” I was excited about the collection for several reasons, including my interest as an archivist, my interest as a former Africanist, my ever-present interest in African American history, and a personal interest in the history of Islam in the United States that dates back to my impressionable teenage years and a youthful flirtation with Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam.

The morning session was devoted to the academic and scholastic significance of the collection. The chief of AMED, Mary-Jane Deeb introduced the session and Eugene Flanagan, Director of General and International Collections moderated a panel consisting of Professor Sylviane Diouf of Brown University, Professor Adam Rothman of Georgetown, and Professor Ala Alryyes from CUNY Queens College.

a photo of the actual, conserved document

All the pertinent information is at the loc.gov site above. I’d like to share here some personal observations from the presentation that stood out for me personally.

First of all, Omar Ibn Said was born in 1770 in Futa Toro, an area that overlaps the border between present-day northeastern Senegal and southeastern Mauritania. The area has an ancient history of advanced metalwork and a more recent history (since around the 12th century) of Islamic scholarship and religious learning. See more about Futa Toro here.

Here is where it gets a bit interesting (and this was brought out peripherally in the panel discussion). Ibn Said was a 37 year old religious scholar when he was captured in 1807, hardly a prime candidate for the slave trade. He was an academic, not a farmworker, and certainly not a manual laborer. So why did he get caught up in the slaver’s web?

It goes back to the US Constitution. Compromises, weird compromises were struck between the northern states and the southern slaveholding states in order to get the document approved by all the states. One such compromise, called the “slave trade provision” was included in Article 1 of the Constitution and said, basically, that there could be no Congressional prohibition on the international slave trade for twenty years from ratification. Sure enough, in 1808, twenty years later, the international slave trade was technically outlawed. But in the two years prior, 1806-1808, there was a made dash by slave traders and slave shippers to get as many Africans as possible kidnapped, captured and shipped to the United States. Omar ibn Said got included in that mad dash, where, frankly, in a more “normal” time, he would have been left to his booksand students.

Another significant point in time was the year he published his autobiography, 1831. I scribled something in my notes that the panelists eventually mentioned. 1831 was the year of the Nat Turner rebellion and there had been a series of slave revolts previously, primarily in Virginia and the Carolinas. Omar Ibn Said was enslaved nearby in North Carolina at the time. (I’ve done some creative writing on Nat Turner, a sort of deconstruction of the “Confessions.” A Sonnet Crown. It’s a work in progress.). I have to do some research to find out what may have been the commercial and/or political forces that supported the publication of Ibn Said’s autobiography, the popularity of the genre at the time, and how the published document might be used. I think we are OK with the idea that Ibn Said had his own personal motivation to putting pen and ink to paper, and there was a mention that writing in Arabic afforded him a bit of safety, because who else inside the power structure could read Arabic at the time?

The final significant point for me is the fact that Omar Ibn Said lived for 93 years. He died in 1863, just two years prior to emancipation. One of the panelists showed deep emotion in expressing his regret that Ibn Said didn’t live long enough to experience freedom. I spoke with the panelist afterwards and shared with him my thinking and sentiment based on my own experience and the Stockdale Paradox. In essence, Omar Ibn Said, whether as a result of trauma or of cool rational calculation, made accomodations with his environment in order to survive, to thrive. He learned English. He learned Christianity (though it is a subject of debate whether he actually converted). He worked in the house, so to speak, and even said (some one quoted it on the panel) he wore the master’s clothes and ate the master’s food. And because of those accomodations, he lived a relatively good life, reached his 90’s, continued his writing, and left a legacy that we are still exploring over a hundred and fifty years after his physical death. Not too shabby for a small town Islamic scholar and religious teacher.

I’ll have more to write on this after reading the Ala Alryyes book.