On Tuesday, January 17, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture debuted its Live from the Archive series with “Archives from the Black Atlantic.” Alexsandra Mitchell, a reference librarian and archivist in the Schomburg’s Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division, described the series as “an overview of the past, present and future of black archives in this country and abroad, as it relates to the African diaspora.”
The series will feature conversations between scholars, artists, community activists, and Schomburg librarians and archivists. Mitchell, who has a passion for teaching and archives, said she had the name of the series in mind for several years and originally envisioned it as weekend educational workshops for children. As part of the Schomburg’s ongoing public programming, Mitchell said the staff hopes the series will increase awareness and understanding about the processes involved in archiving and the materials available in the Schomburg’s collection. Even scholars sometimes don’t fully grasp archivists’ work, Mitchell said.
Additionally, Mitchell said the Schomburg’s Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division staff members want Live from the Archive series to generate conversation about how their collection is “a part of the larger archival community and conversation about where we’re going in the field, where we’re going in terms of black culture.”
At the inaugural program earlier this week, Mitchell and guests Brent Edwards, Columbia University professor of English and Comparative Literature, and Melanie Chambliss, a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University, discussed the history of black archives and their intersection with art and radicalism. Edwards and Chambliss concur that black archives spring from African Americans, such as Arturo Schomburg, who were autodidactic bibliophiles and collectors. Early collecting practices encouraged literacy as a form of activism in free black communities. As more blacks—most of whom, Chambliss noted, were black women—entered the library sciences field, radicalism developed from the ways African Americans outside of institutionalized libraries and archives pushed those working inside the institutions to collect and preserve black history.
“There’s something in the materiality, in the fragility [of archival materials] that’s not just about the antiquarian but about how black people imagined themselves and their futures, the way we’d come together in the future by looking back at our past,” said Edwards.
Schomburg staff plan to hold one Live from the Archive event each season. Details for the next will be announced in March.