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The library is not just a physical building designed to hold books nor an unquestionable authority holding the knowledge of our forebears. Rather, it is a constantly shifting, changing, and evolving organizational system, driven collectively by the librarians working within it, patrons exploring its shelves, and the surrounding community carrying generations of information yet to be included. It can be manipulated, changed, and even expanded to incorporate new sources of knowledge. As access to information expands, it is our responsibility as community members, library patrons, scholars, archivists, librarians, and quite simply people to not take the library at face value. We have the power and ability to question how our own knowledge and experiences might contribute to the questions that can be asked within its walls. As Laura Helton writes, “Indeed, a catalog is a site through which readers come to the very idea of navigation, a sense of what could be read or known.”[i] My experience working with “The Baltimore Collection” helped me develop three core tenets with which I now and will continue to question the possibilities of the library after this semester comes to a close.

First and foremost, order is not static. In the chapter “The Library as Order” from his text The Library at Night, author Alberto Manguel argues that books are arranged and rearranged to suit the purposes of the person organizing them. Presenting several examples of the means through which different cultures organized their knowledge throughout history, he argues that information is organized in a manner that aligns with the beliefs of the people who organized it, their cultural values, and the time period in which they lived. This has happened on both a large and small scale throughout the millennia, and in each instance this work is driven by the people developing the categories. Manguel made a particularly powerful point to this subject, writing, “Ordered by subject, by importance, ordered according to whether the book was penned by God or by one of God’s creatures, ordered alphabetically or by numbers or by the language in which the text is written, every library translates the chaos of discovery and creation into a structured system of hierarchies or a rampage of free associations.”[ii] In short, order is subjective. While the Dewey Decimal System organizes knowledge in public libraries across the United States today, it is important to keep in mind that it has not been the only means through which information has been organized throughout human history.[iii]

This leads me to my second tenet — the Dewey Decimal System need not be disrupted to allow for new knowledge to be incorporated into the library. It is an insular means of organizing knowledge, as only patrons with prior understanding about how the system operates can locate information in libraries that use it. However, completely upending it would make sharing information between libraries virtually impossible. There is an alternative means of questioning the library and its organization — we can expand from within. In her piece “On Decimals, Catalogs, and Racial Imaginaries of Reading,” Helton recounts the history of Dorothy Porter, the librarian who created Howard University’s Collection of Negroana by repurposing Dewey’s cataloging system to organize, expand, and make readily available the library’s holdings of black intellectual works. By working on the catalog itself, Porter arranged works once considered disparate into a single, unified collection. Helton argues that such work gave these texts new meaning, serving as “more than just a site of retrieval, the catalog produced a new black imaginary.”[iv] The ability to complete a project as massive as repurposing call numbers is restricted to librarians, administrators, and others working within the library. However, Porter’s story also highlights the ways in which anyone can be empowered to ask questions of their libraries. By reflecting upon the means with which knowledge is organized and what information the library contains, we can all develop and present questions that might be asked of it.

This semester I had the opportunity to work on “The Baltimore Collection,” an assemblage of photographs produced between 1850 and 1950 predominantly featuring African American sitters. An unknown individual or individuals put this collection together before it was donated to the University of Delaware in 2001. We do not know what motivated the act of collection, how these photographs came together, or why they were selected. What we do know, however, is that this collection is made up of deeply personal vernacular photographs, an area that is under-researched and underrepresented in public institutional and educational arenas. This collection is not well known, but now they are now publicly available through ArtStor, an online digital platform. “The Baltimore Collection” thus has the potential to add increased depth and vividness to our knowledge about black life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

But this project may prove to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. How might those who do not work in libraries as a profession, such as myself, perform such work? What can we do to question and reimagine the library in our own lives? This leads me to my final tenet. Advocating for the inclusion of new knowledge from our lives and communities is a means through which anyone can conduct this work. “The Baltimore Collection” came to the university in a repurposed cardboard. Before this new life, someone who cared deeply about these photographs amassed them together, building a story that mattered personally to that person. This is the origin of new knowledge in the library. This is where information within its walls begins. It starts with the individual act of deciding something is important, valuable, and worth preserving in one’s own life. And it expands out from there. In fact, this small act is a crucial first step for libraries to gradually become more inclusive spaces.

“The Baltimore Collection” serves as one new source of knowledge through which we can reimagine and build a more inclusive library. By looking around our own homes and community spaces — pawing through the nooks, crannies, attics, and basements where photographs, letters, and objects amass — we can organize our knowledge into a personal collection that reflects our life experiences. These personal libraries and collections, as well as the family stories shared between loved ones, speak to a series of life experiences that that matter. And these experiences, once captured in the tangible, have the potential to radically alter the ways in which others understand the world around them.


Maybe your Baltimore Collection is sitting across the room in front of you right now.


Allison Robinson

Winterthur Program in American Material Culture

Class of 2018

[i] Laura E. Helton, “On Decimals, Catalogs, and Racial Imaginaries of Reading,” PMLA (forthcoming 2018)

[ii] Alberto Manguel, “The Library as Order” in The Library at Night (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 60-61

[iii] For more information on the history, structure, and routine revision of the Dewey Decimal System, please see “Dewey Decimal Classification Summaries: A brief introduction to the Dewey Decimal Classification system,” Online Computer Library Center, Inc., accessed December 3, 2017,

[iv] Helton, “On Decimals, Catalogs, and Racial Imaginaries of Reading,” PMLA (forthcoming 2018)


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