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The finding aid, as a tool to present an archival collection to the public, has gained even greater significance in recent years as the coronavirus pandemic and resultant international stay-at-home orders further limited—and continue to limit—the kind of interactions people may have with institutionally held items. The shift from normalized engagement with the archive through tools such as finding aids allows space to acknowledge areas of needed growth and imagine the possibilities of potential attempts to address them. There is much to be said about how we present archival objects through their finding aids, as the genre often occludes the reality of the object itself. Cheryl Finley notes this in her essay on the auctioning of an anonymous album of Black tintype portraits, stating her expectation that the artifact would be like its finding aid: “lacking any particular style or presence.”[1] Accessing finding aids through a digital interface often exacerbates the distance between the finding aid document and the physical archival object itself. Some details become more abstract, such as the material footage the archival boxes contain, while some can sometimes be completely missed, such as a description of the back (or verso) of a photographic object. The translation of physical archival object into objective description of accession, and then into the fraught-with-abstraction digital space, and its resultant efficacy depends greatly upon the care of preservation at each point. With attentive care, the genre of finding aid in both the digital and physical spaces can aid in emphasizing particular nuances of Black culture and being that might otherwise be legible only to specialists.

Finding aids, despite these challenges, are a prime space to address some of the countless possibilities presented to the observer by an unidentified photographic object. Finding aids vary vastly in scope and content, particularly in terms of what historical or contextual background information is provided for the viewer. Some institutions, particularly those invested in the preservation and stewardship of Black historical and cultural objects like the Schomburg Center, include a wealth of historical (or biographical) information in their finding aids. Although many institutions include this type of biographical information for some of their collections, the Eurocentricity of archival practices broadly means that additional contextual information is unequally applied to white collections.

Conversely, describing photographic materials as anonymous or otherwise unidentified, while it may be objectively accurate, carries the connotation of lack. This lack is then emphasized throughout the rest of the finding aid, as the question of identity melts into unknown locations, dates, and so on. Instead of seeing the subject and what is present, the objective description guides the reader to focus upon what is absent. Only the most specialized scholars may look at an unidentified photograph from their period and, without any contextualizing information, understand aspects of the sitter’s personhood, their various identities and choices made in representing them. This is especially true in digitized form, as direct-positive photographs carry a physical intimacy one only truly understands once the object is in the observer’s hand, occupying the same space as their own. These objects, though primarily visual, have an entire sensory palette that significantly affects the viewing experience. As such, there is a continued sense of absence of knowledge about Black American life; this is only heightened by the anonymous identities within some Black collections, including the Black Portrait Photograph Collection. The centuries of prioritizing preservation of white archival materials continue to cast their shadow across American archival institutions, even as these many of these institutions are actively seeking Black historical and cultural objects to diversify their collections.

But there is a fullness to unidentified Black archival objects. The lack of preservation of Black materials throughout time and the archive’s simultaneous bond to objective description often renders this fullness illegible. This is to say that the details that tell the contemporary observer the most about unidentified subjects may lay outside the bounds of objective description, as objective description has been made a tool for white supremacy within archival practice.[2] By catering to a sensory experience of the archive, thereby stepping outside the bounds of objective description, my finding aid seeks to present a guide to some of the possibilities within the Black Portrait Photograph Collection. The hope is that by acknowledging the controversial manner of collection and (lack of) preservation of the Black Portrait Photograph Collection, we may concentrate our energy in caring for and honoring the richness of Black archival objects and their subjects. More simply, this finding aid seeks to prioritize care. The finding aid does so by engaging the observer’s curiosity and empathy through sensory knowledge suggestions.

Creating such a finding aid proved to be a quick lesson in the reality of resources. Although conceptually obvious, the availability of resources is key to the way the finding aid is made, and therefore critical to the final product. Archivists and librarians are limited by factors such as the amount of time they can allot to each collection as well as the funding set aside for such research and development. In my small-scale simulacrum of an archivist’s work, I found myself feeling freed in some significant instances, such as my ability to experiment with the finding aid genre, while greatly limited in areas like a complete lack of budget, greatly reduced amount of time for research and construction, and my general lack of experience and specialized knowledge. These aspects fundamentally affected the kind of work and research I was able to produce. The very attempt at constructing a finding aid—much less a finding aid experimental in nature—expanded my appreciation for the labor involved and gave an opportunity to pause and begin considering the implications of the logistical, methodological, and ideological shifts called for by the transformation of genre expectations.

The implementation of a more subjective finding aid calls for significant departure from traditional approaches. As this project is experimental in nature, its primary function is to ask What might a finding aid that reflects the actuality and possibilities of a collection look like? Questions surrounding the practicality of this practice within an institution are beyond the scope of this project. And yet these questions hang in the air as looming obstacles to implementing accessioning practices that challenge the status quo, in this case via anti-racist practices. It is not the place of this project to suggest how archival institutions might reorganize their resources, including labor and funding schemas, to make such work a responsibility, nor which collections receive priority in terms of resources as well as urgency. To be sure, making a finding aid like this a kind of template for entire institutions would require significant restructuring for most archival institutions. This experiment hopes to suggest that such a restructuring could be incredibly productive, if we are courageous and disciplined enough to pursue it.

The intention of a finding aid equally yoked in subjective and objective information is to provide points of entry to understanding the collection. Providing access to outside resources and demystifying the process of gaining specialized knowledge are two significant ways in which this finding aid hopes to appeal to viewers of varying ages, experience levels, and levels of knowledge. This approach positions the finding aid conceptually closer to an exhibit, as if displaying the first threads from which the fabric of an exhibition is woven. By responsibly grounding subjective information to sensory knowledge, archivists and librarians can make the abstraction of anonymous subjects feel more real. Of course, such work risks overdetermining the interaction of the finding aid’s user with the archival object and collection. The tension between subjective information and dangerous overdetermination in a finding aid is an important concern, one worthy of similar intellectual debate as some of the other various re-envisionings of archival practices posed by scholars over the past several decades. If the practice of engagement through sensory and subjective information is centered in the explicit care for Black archival subjects—therefore explicitly anti-racist in nature—and made explicitly clear to the finding aid’s user, then the potential danger of a more subjective finding aid is marginal comparative to the opportunities it makes possible as well as the extensive damage already wrought by implicitly discriminatory practices. And while broader implementation of this approach may require significant revision to fundamental aspects of some institutions, it seems that practices like this—rather than the capitalist-driven collecting practices currently in vogue—are worth consideration precisely due to the anti-racist action we are called to.

Darby Witek, July 2021

[1] Cheryl Finley, “No More Auction Block for Me!,” in Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity, ed. Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 329–48.

[2] Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia’s Anti-Racist Description Working Group, “Anti-Racist Description Resources.”


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