When Harvard documented its entanglements with slavery last April, it pledged to make amends through a series of impactful recommendations, one of which called for the University to develop enduring partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
On Wednesday, the HBCU Library Alliance and Harvard Library announced a project to sustain and deepen capacity for the digitization, discovery, and preservation of African American history collections held in HBCU libraries and archives across the U.S.
“Historically Black college and university archives document and preserve the histories and accomplishments of African Americans. Their archives are rich with artifacts for scholars to understand the past in preparing for the future,” said Tiwanna Nevels, chair of the board of the HBCU Library Alliance. “The HBCU Library Alliance is delighted to be in partnership with Harvard University as we advance our mission to preserve and make accessible the historical legacies of these institutions. This is an exciting time for HBCU libraries as the alliance continues to further our overall mission.”
The four-year, $6 million project aims to develop strategies and methods for HBCU libraries and archives to scale up the processing and digitization of their collections. The partnership will add to work that already exists in the HBCU Library Alliance’s digital library.
“HBCU libraries have deep connections to African American history and expertise in records that are incredibly important,” said Vice President for the Harvard Library and University Librarian Martha Whitehead. “This partnership will open and preserve access to many significant research collections held in HBCU libraries while ensuring they retain ownership of the collections. Students, scholars, and researchers around the world will benefit from the preservation and digitization of these materials. Harvard Library aspires to expand world knowledge and intellectual exploration, and we’re grateful that we can partner with the HBCU Library Alliance as they share and preserve their cultural resources and research.”
HBCUs have for centuries provided environments in which students of color feel a sense of community and belonging that enables them to thrive during their college and postgraduate years. They have produced 70 percent of the nation’s Black doctors, 80 percent of its judges, 40 percent of Black congressional lawmakers, 50 percent of Black lawyers, and the first Black vice president of the U.S.
But like the underserved communities that the majority of their student bodies come from, these essential institutions continue to bear the heavy race-weighted burdens of the nation’s legacy of slavery, operating with smaller endowments, lower tuitions, and considerable competition from wealthy, historically white institutions seeking to diversify their campuses with the nation’s brightest Black scholars.
According to Sandra Phoenix, executive director of the HBCU Library Alliance, the collaboration with Harvard will provide an opportunity to “share HBCU stories, complete the historical record, augment American history, and create new scholarship to make these very valuable stories known to a broader public.”
She added, “HBCU libraries and archives connect us to those wonderful ancestral stories; they authenticate American history. Our historical legacy is stored in these significant institutions.”
Phoenix added that this partnership can elevate the voice and visibility of smaller institutions whose libraries house important collections, but which have fewer resources and are often staffed by just one person. “We want to make sure we leave no story behind as we do this work and create this narrative about HBCU collections and the power of those amazing stories,” she said.
Loretta Parham, CEO and director of the Robert W. Woodruff Library and HBCU Library Alliance co-founder, is particularly hopeful about how the digitized collections will enhance student scholarship and engagement.
She recalled the excitement she witnessed among undergraduates during a period when her library held a Tupac Shakur collection. “Making an impression, making a difference with that undergraduate student is just everything, because it can be defining for them in their career. It can be defining for them in the way they approach their critical thinking, creative energies, and strategies,” she said. “These are the jewels that sit in our collections that can just shine so differently in so many ways for these students if we just pull them out. That’s what I hope.”
Without access to digitized collections, Parham added, students risk missing out on key parts of their history.