The Finding Aid (FA) I created for the Black Portrait Photograph Collection was heavily influenced by my experiences working at the Delaware Historical Society as a graduate assistant. I relied heavily on pre-existing FAs at the Delaware Historical Society to create a comprehensive African American Research Guide for this institution. Though the Delaware Historical Society uses a standardized framework for their FAs, the amount of detailed information included, and the terminology used within the FAs was varied and inconsistent. Created across time by different employees of the institution, FAs take on the social and political climate of their time, while relying on the discernment of the individual maker. For that reason, I wanted to create a “living” FA for the Black Portrait Photograph Collection that did not assume the authority of the maker at any time. The FA includes a contact number and a short statement to appeal to scholars from various disciplines to contact the University of Delaware, should they have information pertinent to the collection. As all the photographs in the Black Portrait Photograph Collection have no known authors and depict unidentified sitter(s), the space was made for discovery, encouraging collective information gathering over time.
Encouraging discovery is the main justification for my “less is more” approach to the traditional FA format. Heavily interpretive or detailed collection descriptions can be limiting to scholars who find there is nothing left to discover or that the traditional information found in FAs are unhelpful for their research. Without factual historical information, many FA authors assume race, gender, and relationships depicted in photographs based on surface level interpretations. These assumptions can be misunderstood for facts by scholars who trust the authoritative voice of the FA and ultimately the repository. I want my FA to compel scholars to go directly to the photographs inside the Black Portrait Photograph Collection, with as few assumptions as possible. Though the “less is more” format does not address the gaps in biographical information on the photographers, sitter(s), and the provenance of the items, it does encourage scholars to work directly with objects to craft their own speculations. Creating in the wake of such scholars as Dorothy Porter (1905-1995), who revolutionized the cataloging process to make space for Black knowledges, absence is meant to connote what we do not know yet. This increases the possibility for new engagement and reinterpretation of the nine tintypes and two crayon enlargements found within the collection.
The form of my final Black Portrait Photograph Collection FA is streamlined to include the information that is known and most relevant. The “Biography” field, a standard field used for providing contextual information about the creation or formation of a body of archival materials, was removed, and the “Scope and Content” fields were consolidated into one section that includes collection notes, box, and folder level descriptions.
For example: “Box 1: 9 tintype (collodion images on japanned iron) photographic portraits created circa 1860-1880, depicting individual and group portraits of unidentified [Black] people in unidentified settings.”
I not only want to directly acknowledge gaps in information, but also encourage scholars to respond to them from their own knowledge base. Playing with language enabled me to describe the photographs with as little interpretation as possible, while revealing multiple possibilities for informed interpretation. The first decision I made from this framework was to use the term “unidentified” instead of “unknown” in reference to sitter(s), photographers, and place of origin. Unidentified opens the possibility for future identification and encourages continued research.
For example: “The Black Portrait Photograph Collection of 11 photographs created by unidentified photographers created between the 1860s and the 1920s, acquired and assembled by the University of Delaware from various sources between 2019-2021, depicting individual and group portraits of unidentified [Black] people in unidentified settings.”
Utilizing terms like “speculation” and “assumption,” and by foregrounding the limits of the descriptive terms, the Aid reads like a conversation. The assumption can easily be made that the sitters depicted within the eleven photographs of the Black Portrait Photograph Collection are all Black American because of their physical appearances and the photographs are held in a repository in the United States. Recognizing the limitations of my contemporary lens, I found that “Black,” with the caveat that racial labels are based on visual identification, is an identity label that speaks to a racial and cultural experience without the boundaries of a particular nation. The Library of Congress’ standardized “Subject Headings” uses African American to denote those of African descent. I also replaced African American with Black, as a hopeful gesture for more inclusive Subject Headings in the future.
For example: “The race, age, nationality, class, and gender of the photographers and the sitters can be speculated, but not assumed. The term [Black] is used to describe the sitters based on their visual appearance and the assumption that they are of African descent.”
To explore the Finding Aid I created for the Black Portrait Photograph Collection, please download from the link below: