February 2010: Newly Reorganized Archives Benefits Museum, Community
The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, the world's largest institution dedicated to the African American experience, holds a collection of more than 30,000 artifacts and archival materials. African textiles and sculptures, items from the diaspora, Malcolm X’s papers, fine art, music recordings, and many manuscripts, books, and photographs are housed in a facility the size of two football fields. However, before 2007, nobody knew for certain what was in the collection or where each item was located, in large part because the museum lacked a professional archivist. Access to the archives was by appointment only.
In 2006, Juanita Moore was hired as the museum’s president and immediately began upgrading the museum’s capacity to serve the community. Among the first projects that she and her staff proposed was the Archives Professional Capacity Project, in which the museum would hire a full-time archivist, provide professional development for the archivist’s assistants, organize the archives, and improve access to them.
In August 2007, the museum received a one-year, $106,318 Museum Grant for African American History and Culture from IMLS for the project. The Whitney Fund and the Ford Foundation both provided matching funds.
Building a Foundation
To kick off the project, Bob Smith, the museum’s director of curatorial and archives, hired three consultants to assess the archives’ conservation needs. Then, in October 2007, the museum hired archivist Alexis Braun Marks. She met with the consultants, made her own assessment, and developed a plan in early 2008 to carry out the project’s objectives. Among her highest priorities were to organize the collection and establish basic policies and procedures for handling and processing items. There really was no foundation, so my role was to create some foundational structure and then to lead everybody through the process and be the consummate cheerleader," Marks explained.
When she arrived, Marks found gaps in what had been processed. For example, there was a card catalog, but many books did not have spine labels, and nothing was on the shelves in order. There was no reliable inventory for any of the collections.
"There were no finding aids and there was a lot of record keeping that had sort of gone by the wayside, and so it was like looking at a once beautiful home that had clearly fallen into disrepair," said Marks.
Marks served as project director and trained the two assistants who were transferred to her department. Matching funds paid for one assistant to enroll in Wayne State University’s Graduate School of Library Science to get more education in archival administration. Marks also hired two part-time paid interns from Wayne State’s School of Library Science—one for cataloging and one for processing.
The team began by revising and setting procedural standards. They also began using three separate software programs to manage print resources and track equipment and materials that were checked out.
"Part of the problem with the profession as a whole is that there’s no one good database that does everything that you need it to do. So a lot of repositories end up using multiple systems," said Marks.
Marks also expanded the museum’s relationship with Wayne State, which now sends many of its library science graduate students to do their processing practica at the museum. During the project, four students completed a 40-hour practicum at the museum; two of them stayed on as volunteers.
To make more materials available online, the team began a photographic scanning project, supported by a new scanning practicum at the university. As many as 25 students per semester helped to chip away at the collection’s thousands of photographs.
The museum also forged a partnership with the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences’ community outreach program, which led to two high school seniors volunteering in the archives to earn their community service hours.
Organizing Makes an Impact
During the project, the archives team conserved or preserved 472 collection items and gave 3,472 items new or enhanced accessibility, including 3,179 items that were made accessible to non-museum staff for the first time.
The staff now has an understanding of all archival content and where each box of a collection is located. Marks’ team also revamped the rare books collection and discovered some collections that had been forgotten.
One rare book the staff found unlabeled on a shelf was a first edition of The Dream Keeper, by Langston Hughes, who signed it on a visit to Detroit in 1941.
The team also created a complete accession record for the manuscript and photograph collections and cataloged 95 percent of the archives’ published materials, which are now in the online catalog. In addition, the library, archives, and research center are now open to the public four days a week.
Internally, the archives’ reorganization has been a boon for museum staff. "People know they can now come to us and get information," said Marks. "Everything that’s in our online catalog is on the shelf, it has a label, we know where it is, and we can retrieve it quickly."
In addition, the archives can now help the museum produce original exhibits. Before the project, the museum primarily rented exhibits, but in 2009 it created three of its own, including one about world champion boxer and Detroit native Joe Louis. The archives gathered relevant items from the collection for the curator and designer and performed photo research. "If the archives were not functional, we would not have been able to do that exhibit," said Smith.
Externally, the revamped archives have benefitted visitors, researchers, and item donors. More researchers are coming in and more people are willing to donate artifacts and papers, whereas before the project, people were less comfortable with the idea of giving their collections to the museum.
The changes have also reassured previous donors, because they can see progress being made as the practicum students help process the backlog of donated items.
Challenges and Lessons Learned
Although the entire project was one huge challenge, maintaining momentum while trying to meet a tight deadline proved to be particularly daunting.
"In archives, there is the predisposition to slow down and linger over documents," noted Marks. "As I tell my practicum students and volunteers and interns, don’t get bogged down. I don’t want to catch you reading anything, except for the general content. It was definitely a challenge to keep people moving forward."
For those considering similar projects, Marks advises taking time to plan, if possible. "Looking back, I would have done probably a museum-wide survey of records, because people had stuff at their desks and in closets. A lot of that’s institutional, but really give yourself a month or a little bit more to really sit back and survey and plan."
The Work Continues
In May 2009 after the grant period ended, the team launched a Virtual Archives and Exhibitions Web site. It features online collections and exhibits, as well as links to the image collection and the museum’s library catalog.
The archives staff continue to arrange and describe collections, catalog published materials, and gain better intellectual control over their holdings. They have processed the entire photograph collection, and each picture has a finding aid and is in the Archivists’ Toolkit database.
"My hope is to have, by the end of next year , all of our finding aids for completed collections in the database and online for researchers," said Marks. "From there we’ll just keep processing as best we can. I think it will be some time before we’re finished."