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Before entering the fall 2017 semester’s graduate course with Professor Julie McGee, “Curating Hidden Collections & the Black Archive,” I did not know the phrase “decolonizing the archive.” When I heard the phrase, it resonated with me and spoke to one of my unvoiced intentions for returning to school to study history. What about a decolonization of the archive, the library, the museum, the historic site, and my list could go on. I wanted to know more about this concept, the methodology we could pursue as a class in our work on “The Baltimore Collection” and how to make this happen in one semester, which was the equivalent of fourteen weeks. Only fourteen weeks. And we had to work against decades of institutionally-approved constructions of colonization in regard to the way Black photographs are read, cataloged, and made available to the museum community and the general public. Nonetheless, at the beginning of the semester I was excited by the possibilities, apprehensive about the time-frame, and unsure of what to expect in the class.

When I think back over the semester I distinctly remember two articles featuring projects where decolonization of an archive was paramount.  The first one was an illuminating 2015 article by Marisa Elena Duarte and Miranda Belarde-Lewis entitled, “Imagining: Creating Spaces for Indigenous Ontologies” which the class read in week three of the semester. The second article was by Dorothy Porter entitled, “In the Realm of Scholarship: A Library on the Negro” published in 1941, which we read in week five of the semester. Porter was a librarian at Howard University, hired in 1931 to properly catalog and organize the expanding collection of materials related to Black life in America. [1] Both articles explained the initial condition of the archive, the authors’ theory or methodology for their work, and how practitioners conducted the decolonization process in their respective archives.

Duarte and Belarde-Lewis’s goal in writing their article was to give “knowledge organization practitioners and theorists” the tools to understand the power structures behind the creation of archives. These power structures of white supremacy explain the marginalization of Native American and Indigenous people and their records in libraries, archives, and museums. The practitioners and theorists must understand Indigenous knowledge organizations and how the colonizers’ naming, describing, classifying, and standardizing removes the original knowledge organizations. The authors give the example of how the text-based, literacy-based colonial structure does not provide space/place for oral histories, communal or aesthetic practices, and kinetic knowledge of the Indigenous peoples. Therefore, decolonization is in order. According to Duarte and Belarde-Lewis, this dismantling, and the creation of alternative structures in archives is made possible through the act of “imagining.” This imagining consists of creating figurative and literal spaces for the envisioning and discovery of Indigenous knowledge organizations. [2]

The same colonial power structures Duarte and Belarde-Lewis address in their article that suppressed and marginalized Indigenous populations also marginalized Black people and their records in many libraries, archives, and museums. Porter’s goal in writing her piece in 1938 was to introduce her fellow scholars-librarians-archivists, and the public to the decolonization work she had started in cataloging the Moorland-Springarn Research Center Library at Howard University. Written in 1938, Porter did not call her work a “decolonization of the archive” but for me looking retrospectively at her work her methodological approach in beginning with the existing Dewey Decimal System but altering it to make it suitable to the cataloging of the Black collection I see as a form of decolonization. Her goal was to move all books related to Black people out of the one ‘325’ section of the system where they had previously been designated and disperse them throughout the system in relation to their topics. For instance, Porter understood that a book on slavery could be catalogued under several subject headings including religious, economic, biographical, legal, the views of travelers, and so forth depending on the lens through which slavery was being examined by the scholar of the book. [3] This allowed Porter to continually add to the Moorland-Springarn Collection as additional books on Black life in America were found or published. As Duarte and Belarde-Lewis highlight in their article on Indigenous knowledge organization, similarly in this article for Porter, “In the Library of the Negro” her decolonization methodology allows for the future envisioning and discovery of knowledge organization within Black literary history.

The work of “imagining” a decolonized archive for a collection of photographs became an important class goal for fourteen weeks. We read and wrapped our heads around the histories, theories, and methodologies scholars engaged when working within metadata, Black visual culture, photography, cataloging, and critical research methods. We examined national collections online and visited local institutions to understand what methodologies and naming practices were being used within other collections containing photographs of Black sitters or created by Black photographers at institutions. In the end, we devised titles and metadata information for the photographs presented in University of Delaware’s ArtStor database. Inspired by Porter, beginning with the Library of Congress subject terms, we worked together to create subject terms that acknowledged the possible race, gender, childhood, location, and any other characteristics about the people in our photographs, the photographers, and photography studios that we found worthy of calling out to decolonize this archive of photographs. I hope that our work on “The Baltimore Collection” can be another example Duarte and Belarde-Lewis can reference in the future as an example of “imagining” decolonization of the archive and that Ms. Dorothy Porter would be proud of having inspired.

By: Kelli Coles

[1] Nancy Kuhl. “New Scholarship: Julie Botnick on Dorothy Porter’s Life and Work | Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library,” May 23, 2014.

[2] Marisa Elena Duarte and Miranda Belarde-Lewis, “Imagining: Creating Spaces for Indigenous Ontologies,” Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 53, no. 5–6 (July 4, 2015): 687,

[3] Dorothy B Porter, “A Library on the Negro,” The Journal of Negro Education 10, no. 2 (1941): 116.

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