Archival collections project reaches completion
It was the kind of serendipity that researchers dream about.
Ph.D. student Marcia Walker had been working at the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature for a few weeks when she asked Michael Flug, the collection’s senior curator, if he knew anything about Addie Wyatt. Wyatt, a key figure in the civil rights movement, would become the subject of Walker’s dissertation.
“His mouth fell open, and he gave me this look—like, ‘Are you serious?’” Walker said. Flug took her to a hallway where cartons and cartons of Wyatt’s papers sat untouched.
“I felt great … It was a big undertaking, but I was happy to find that her papers were there,” Walker said.
Walker would spend the next year and a half painstakingly organizing Wyatt’s previously unseen documents as part of UNCAP, the Uncovering New Chicago Archives Project at the University of Chicago.
On Dec. 10, the University of Chicago Library will host an event celebrating the completion of UNCAP, an initiative that aimed to improve access to archival collections at cultural institutions throughout Chicago. At the event, library staff will share the final component of UNCAP, a website that allows researchers to search the contents of all collections across institutions. Speakers from the University and its partner institutions—the Vivian G. Harsh Collection, the DuSable Museum of African American History, the Chicago Defender and the South Side Community Arts Center—will discuss the lasting impact of the project on the community.
Thanks to UNCAP, researchers now have access to previously hidden treasures, including the archives of the Chicago Defender, the Sun Ra Collection, the papers of poet Paul Carroll, the work of political cartoonist Chester Commodore, the founding documents of the South Side Community Arts Center, and the archives of the famed Chicago Review, a student-run journal founded in 1946, which published the early works of Philip Roth, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, among others.
UNCAP grew out of Mapping the Stacks, a program that former UChicago professor Jacqueline Goldsby started. For this program, Goldsby, now an associate professor of English at New York University, worked with a team of graduate students to identify and process archives related to African American history in Chicago from 1930 to 1970. With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Goldsby and the library created UNCAP to expand on and continue the work of MTS, to process University of Chicago Library hidden collections and build a technical infrastructure to bring the finding aids for all the collections together.
UNCAP and MTS took on two major challenges: the relative paucity of archival materials related to African American history and literature, and the larger problem of “hidden archives.” Because of the labor and cost required to process archival materials, many cultural institutions are saddled with a substantial backlog of documents that are largely inaccessible to researchers.
“There are crucial, complex histories we can’t tell about mid-20th century African American history because researchers don’t know if the archives exist or not," Goldsby said.
To tackle the problem, Goldsby hired graduate students who had expertise in African American studies. The archival staff at the UChicago Special Collections Research Center taught the students how to process historical documents: materials are inventoried, sorted, and described in detailed “finding aids” that help users understand what each collection contains.
After their training was complete, the students were let loose on box after box of letters, notes, photos, and videos at the Harsh Collection, the South Side Community Arts Center, the Chicago Defender and the DuSable Museum of African American History.
At the same time, also under the auspices of UNCAP, faculty, graduate students, and Special Collections staff at the University of Chicago Library worked to expand and improve access to the Chicago Jazz Archive and the library’s contemporary poetry collection.
Alice Schreyer, Director of the Special Collections Research Center, noted that the library staff adopted new ways of handling archival materials because of the massive quantities they faced in these projects. Instead of applying a “one size fits all” approach to processing materials, they relied on faculty input to determine how collections would be used and tailored their work accordingly. “You have to be very strategic,” Schreyer said.
The work initially seemed daunting. Melissa Barton, a PhD student in English who began working with MTS in 2005, remembers her first day at the DuSable museum. “They took us up to the attic … it was stacked from floor to ceiling with boxes. And they said, ‘Go to town.’”
The students set to work in whatever spaces were available, carefully sorting and describing the materials they unearthed.
For Barton, the highlight of MTS was forming relationships with people at each of the institutions. “I wouldn’t trade that for working in a pristine room on a clean table,” she said.
Walker admits the work could be tedious, but “seeing people in the research room, looking at the collections that we processed is amazing—because those materials weren’t available before,” she said. “And clearly, because people are looking at those collections, there was a need.”
“I know my work will never be the same,” Goldsby added.
– Susie Allen
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