Today at Moorland-Spingarn (July 25, 2019)

It’s been almost two months since my last blog post. Not that there hasn’t been anything of interest to write about; there has been plenty. But we have been slogging through that stage of collection processing that does not lend itself to publicity, to public airing of the process, because of the possibility of harming the final product. Nonetheless, we are coming to a turning point in the long term project, and now we can actually see the light at the end of the tunnel, especially for the two main portions, correspondence and writings. So despite the constant labor and effort required to push this project to its turning point, I am going to pause today, get a gulp of fresh air, and survey our progress.

We have an undergraduate worker helping out, a promising young scholar with youthful ideas and drive. It makes a big difference. We started him on photographs and graduated him to correspondence. Meanwhile, I continue to plow through the boxes of documents making the first pass for sorting, preservation, and identification.

We met today with a team of scientists on campus doing related work, not with documents from the collection, but with related artifacts, in this case, bones of cadavers that comprised the collection of the noted anthropologist, anatomist, educator and physician whose papers we are processing. Here is a link from this morning Channel 9 news spot covering the work these scientists are conducting: Cobb Research Center in the news. The Cobb Research Center, expertly led by anthropologist Dr. Fatimah Jackson, has also recently published a bio piece on the subject of our collection, mentioned in an earlier post, Dr. William Montague Cobb. We plan to maintain this collaboration and make it richer and stronger.

We also plan to reach out to other parts of the University community as we get closer to completion, to making the collection fully discoverable and researchable, with the aim of giving Howard departments first dibs on perusing the vast wealth of historical information in this significant collection.

Following the rules of MPLP (more product, less process), we have decided to divide the correspondence into only three broad categories: Cobb’s work with the National Medical Association (NMA) and its DC chapter; Cobb’s civil rights and medical work with the NAACP; and everything else. The correspondence, ultimately, will be alphabetized by individual name and in some cases when prominent enough, subject or event name.

The writings are a different subject, and right now we are focusing exclusively of items written by Cobb himself, manuscripts, articles, book reviews, speeches he gave, and conference presentations. One estimate has the number at over 11,000 items. We will be streamlining that somewhat. Conferences and delegations of significance with have to make up its own category. These will be included with the collection. All the strictly NMA organizational stuff, journals, bound volumes and article reprints outside correspondence we will index, but they will be stored apart from the processed collection. We still haven’t decided what to do with what we call routine “engagements,” the many events to which Cobb was invited as an official representative and in which he took part, but I suspect they will also be indexed and stored in a remote location. There will be several boxes of “ephemera,” transactional stuff like receipts, event programs, obits, news clippings, etc., that will definitely remain with the collection.

I am anticipating completion of all correspondence, writings, photographs, and ephemera by the end of February, my one year anniversary with Moorland-Spingarn. Not too shabby a timeline when you consider this collection has been with us for decades. Decades. I met a guy today who had my job well over twenty years ago. He told me he remembered going to Dr. Cobb’s house to remove the boxes of documents and relocate them to Moorland Spingarn. That’s way too long a gap between receipt of a collection and final processing.

As an aside, I met a very distinguished lady today to whom we refer scholars who are researching her father’s papers, a long time Howard history professor. I mentioned to her that we would love to have her father’s collection in the archive. She countered that we don’t have a great reputation for processing papers in an expeditious fashion. After going through the normal spiel about funding and staffing, we gave each other that look that admits our respective faults, mostly the institution’s failures. I wish I had enough time to correct all of these organizational flaws, but my time is short and I promised my wife I would only work five years come hell or high water. That is the sadness of the job for me. It is ultimately Greek tragedy, though nonetheless, very fine drama. A sadness that is frequently counterbalanced by the joy of discovery and the immense potential for outreach and increased accessibility. That said, I intend to give it my level best effort during my tenure here.

Howard University’s history is marked by housing successive assemblages of intellectual giants (the Howard School of IR Theory espoused and developed by a group of Howard professors early in the 20th century is another brilliant example) whose academic work charted the course not only of the black diaspora in America but of American progress in general and of African leadership development worldwide. We have to be better at both preserving the documentary evidence of that magnificent contribution to the world at large, and of enabling the telling of that story through access, discovery, and preservation of that evidence. It’s a big job. A really big job.

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:

The Significance of Special Collections


The title of this presentation, “The Significance of Special Collections,” is a statement of fact. But is it also a question? As a declaration it reaches a dead end: either special collections are significant or they are not. But as a question, it opens several lines of inquiry. For example, significant to whom or to what? And significant in the past, in the present or in the future? Or for all time?

Garrett Park Archives, where I work, is a type of special collection. We have a small library, a stock of town records dating back to the incorporation of the town in 1898, some artifacts, and some donated private collections which include residential files, records of various civic groups, and oral histories. Our nearby  neighbors in Kensington, Rockville and Chevy Chase call their collections historical societies, and that, in essence, is what we are, a historical society, a memory institution.

A special collection is significant as a memory institution to the community it covers and represents. In the case of Moorland Spingarn, that community is Howard University students, faculty and researchers, in particular, and the community of people of African descent in general.

I read in the Libguide that Moorland Spingarn Research Center is comprised of four content units: the university archives, a library division, a print and photo unit, and a manuscript division. And a fifth unit consists of digital collections, both born digital assets and items digitized on site. This brings us to an additional significance of a special collection.

For promoting access, for preservation considerations, for space and cost constraints, digitization is by all accounts the path forward. Digitization of records and actual items across content types, like books, photographs, manuscripts, archive and museum artifacts presents a great opportunity to apply common cataloguing standards and common taxonomies that will serve as a multiplying effect for additional access opportunities for students, faculty, researchers, and community users, both on site, and in an online environment.

Additionally, it could provide avenues for cooperation and collaboration across institutions in the future that may or may not exist in the present. I am thinking here about the Library of Congress and the massive universe of Smithsonian museums. But this also could include smaller institutions and learning centers as well.

Of course, digitization is not a panacea. We are already seeing digital decay in degradations in the quality of storage media (try playing that CD you bought twenty years ago). File glut, bit corruption, hardware failure, and obsolescence of formats over time are all examples. Document formatting changes over time. In general, entropy rules – things gradually decline from order to disorder.

Even the internet is not a cure all, though from where we sit it looks like it may last forever. One internet guru says, “If it doesn’t exist on the Internet, it doesn’t exist.” He points out the obvious, that access to special collections on the internet can promote greater access to that collection. But he makes a more significant point – when the collection is also connected to a learning institution, there are added benefits: the institution gives added credibility to the online resource, and the online resource brings a much larger audience of students, scholars and researchers to the learning institution. Without going into too much detail, a center like Moorland-Spingarn connected to Howard University has built-in advantages that a larger center like Schomburg lacks.

Finally, much of my MSLIS course work revolved around a growing trend of convergence across cultural heritage institutions, galleries, libraries, archives and museums. I am including a list of readings from various courses at the end of this presentation. Convergence ultimately results in the creation of a networked information society with online access to all facets of information in the social and informational space. The opportunity to approach and take part in this convergence movement may be the greatest significance offered by special collection, a significance shared equally by staff, students, faculty, scholars and the community at large.

Thank you for this opportunity to have this conversation.

References and additional reading

Bray, David (2007) ‘Knowledge Ecosystems: A Theoretical Lens for Organizations Confronting Hypertubulent Environments,’ in IFIP International Federation for Information Processing, Volume 235, Organizational Dynamics of Technology-Based Innovation: Diversifying the Research Agenda, eds. McMaster, T., Wastell, D., Ferneley, E., and DeGross, J. (Boston: Springer), pp. 457-462. Accessed January 14, 2019 at http://dl.ifip.org/db/conf/ifip8-6/ifip8-6-2007/Bray07.pdf

Erway, Ricky, and Jennifer Schaffner (2017) ‘Shifting Gears: Gearing Up to Get into the Flow’. 2nd Ed. Dublin, OH: OCLC Research. doi:10.25333/C3159X. Accessed January 14, 2019 at https://www.oclc.org/content/dam/research/publications/2017/oclcresearch-shifting-gears-second-edition-2017.pdf

Fox. Robert (2011) “Forensics of digital librarianship”, OCLC Systems & Services: International digital library perspectives, Vol. 27 Issue: 4, pp.264-271, https://doi.org/10.1108/10650751111182560

Goldsmith, Kenneth (2007) ‘If it doesn’t exist on the internet, it doesn’t exist.’ Poetry Foundation, March, 2007, Accessed on January 14, 2019 at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2007/03/if-it-doesnt-exist-on-the-internet-it-doesnt-exist.

Gorzalski, Matt (2016) ‘Archivists and Thespians: A Case Study and Reflections on Context and Authenticity in a Digitization Project,’ The American Archivist Vol. 79, No. 1 Spring/Summer 2016 161–185, Accessed January 14, 2019 at http://americanarchivist.org/doi/10.17723/0360-9081.79.1.161

Marty, Paul F. (2009) ‘An introduction to digital convergence: libraries, archives, and museums in the information age.’ Museum Management and Curatorship Vol. 24, No. 4, December 2009, 295-298. Accessed January 14, 2019 at https://marty.cci.fsu.edu/preprints/marty_mmc2009.pdf .

Trant, Jennifer (2009) ‘Emerging convergence? Thoughts on museums, archives, libraries, and professional training’, Museum Management and Curatorship, 24: 4, 369 — 387. Accessed January 14, 2019 at https://courses.ischool.berkeley.edu/i290-ppos/reading/EmergingConvergence.pdf