Temple University’s Urban Archives Celebrates Fiftieth Anniversary

In 1967, Temple University’s library staff began to archive documents, photographs, and other materials related to Philadelphia’s history in a small room in the then-new Samuel L. Paley Library. This year, the Urban Archives reached its fiftieth year. A symposium in the former Temple Baptist Church on October 20, 2017, honored the half-century milestone and featured an array of speakers, from Urban Archives founder Herbert Bass to researchers who used the archives to produce new scholarship.

A number of archives and repositories focus on Philadelphia’s earliest years as the hub of colonial political life and, later, the first Capital of the United States. Others focus on one subject across a broad geographical era. The Urban Archives instead focuses on the Philadelphia area’s social, economic, and political, and physical development across time. The repository has grown to include many millions of documents, photographs, videos, and other materials from the mid-nineteenth century to the present.

Herbert Bass credited the creation of the archives to the unique atmosphere of the 1960s. The archive, which houses many collections related to African American history ignored by mainstream news media, was founded three years after racial tension between the Philadelphia Police Department and the largely black population of North Philadelphia erupted in two days of intense rioting. At the same time, the Baby Boomer generation came of age and began to attend college which facilitated the expansion of Temple just blocks away from the riot’s epicenter. Against this backdrop, the Urban Archives was proposed both as a resource for researchers and a way to foster community engagement and understanding. It is part of the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) in the Paley Library.

One of its largest collections is the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin morgue. When that newspaper went out of business in 1982, it donated its entire archives, totaling over four million images and seven million news clippings, to the Urban Archives. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently followed suit. These collections hold moments in Philadelphia’s history, from the ordinary to the spectacular, across most of the twentieth century. The Charles L. Blockson Collection, another collection in the SCRC, holds what these two repositories often lack, namely the African American history that was seldom covered in the mainstream media in the early decades of the twentieth century. These collections have become a valuable resource for journalists, students, historians, and casual researchers. Director of the Special Collections Research Center Margery Sly estimated that half of the Urban Archives’ users are community members from outside of Temple’s network. 

These are just a few of the over one hundred collections held in the SCRC. Such a vast resource can be overwhelming to first-time researchers. Historian Matthew Countryman offered this advice to users of the Urban Archives: “Just open a folder and keep turning the pages. You never know what you’ll find.” Countryman used the archives extensively in researching his 2007 book, Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania Press). Other speakers highlighted the archives’ use by local participants in National History Day, a project contest for students in grades 6-12, and by creators of the video series Philadelphia: The Great Experiment, the first documentary film series to feature the city.

Margaret Jerrido, who served as Head of the Urban Archives from 1990 until 2007, pointed out the difficulties facing archives in the digital era. Questions arose over the preservation of digital materials by the Urban Archives and similar repositories. Archivists, she explained, must work much faster to preserve ephemeral resources like email correspondence and websites. They are also actively working to identify and preserve some of the city’s most endangered historic collections before the ravages of time render them unsalvageable. 

In his closing segment, Inquirer and former Evening Bulletin reporter Joe Slobodzian remarked on the importance of archives like Temple’s in the digital era. “Fake news isn’t new,” he explained, “and neither is fake history. But the Internet puts both at our fingertips. That’s what makes [the Urban Archives] so vital.”

The symposium was preceded by the opening of History of a City: Celebrating Fifty Years of the Urban Archives, an exhibit housed in the Paley Library. It showcases artifacts from the archives, from nineteenth century trade union literature to signs from the January 2017 women’s marches. The exhibit is free and open to the public and will remain on view until January 2018.

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MARCH Director’s note:  The Urban Archives has been the source of many illustrations for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, for which we are grateful.  For many years, MARCH was pleased to sponsor the annual Fredric M. Miller Lecture, honoring the historian and activist who served as curator of the Urban Archives from 1973 to 1989.

Lucy Davis is the Digital Media Coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities. She studies public history at Rutgers University, Camden.