Let the Record Show

Under yellow lights, Woodson Regional Library’s curator of 23 years, Robert Miller, paces among rows of shelves stacked with boxes, offering explanations as he goes along. From time to time, he stops and opens a box to reveal memories stored in the form of articles and historical documents, many dating as far back as the early 1900s. Slave documents, newspaper clippings, pages from history books — Miller willingly displays a wide array of media that tells the story of the African-American experience in the Midwest United States. Miller boasts of the Collection with pride, gently stroking a document with his fingers. “We’ve got one of the world’s most famous collections of African-American history and literature. People come from all over just to see these documents.”

Miller is situated in the middle of the Vivian Harsh Collection, which grew to its current size after Jacqueline Goldsby, a former associate professor at the University of Chicago, began to reorganize and add to the archives. In 2004, Goldsby stepped into the Woodson Regional Library intent on jumpstarting a reading forum. Driven by the desire to expose the public to African-American works of literature, especially those from the often overlooked Chicago Renaissance of the 1940s and ‘50s, she began to search for texts. Goldsby delved into the Vivian Harsh Collection, which includes the Special Negro Collection, a selection of texts and documents first brought together by Vivian Harsh, the first black librarian in the Chicago Public Library’s system. Harsh was determined to raise awareness  about Midwestern African-American literature through newspaper articles and books that were difficult to access — a goal Goldsby intended to  take on as well. But Goldsby soon realized the challenges she faced: most of the works remained uncategorized, and the archives lacked an archival finding aid, a document containing information about the texts in the collection. Goldsby found obtaining the texts she needed was impossible.

“You see, we had everything here but there was no way for anyone to find any of the materials they needed,” Miller explains. “Jacky wasn’t the first to notice that, but unlike most people she went and did something about it.”

Determined to  make the Collection accessible to the community, Goldsby approached Woodson Regional’s senior archivist, Michael Flug. The two began work on an archival project. Noting that the Vivian Harsh Collection did not possess the necessary funds to reorganize and expand the archives, Goldsby approached the UofC and fought for a grant to expand the Collection. Her efforts were rewarded: the University’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture granted Goldsby $5,000 to spearhead her project. Named “Mapping the Stacks”, Goldsby’s project called for extensive preservation work for the texts,  reorganization of the Vivian Harsh Collection, and the creation of a finding aid so that documents could be easily located. With the cooperation of UofC faculty, Goldsby recruited dedicated graduate students to handle documents relevant to their field of study, not only to provide them with experience working with an archive, but to also bolster their studies with documents that were, until recently, really hard to find. Soon, students and library staff alike adopted Goldsby’s vision of ensuring that material found in the archives would reach the wider community.

After six years with library staff and students working 40 hours a week, the Vivian Harsh Collection now holds 70,000  books, 500  periodical titles, and  5,000 reels of film. Original manuscripts from famous black journalists and writers like Richard Wright and Langston Hughes make the Collection an integral part of African-American literary history. The University acknowledges its value as an academic and cultural resource, and now the Humanities department provides $19,000 a year to foster continued growth. Proper categorization has extended the Collection’s reach, teaching generations of residents about African-American history, literature, music, and film. But the Vivian Harsh Collection does not limit itself to only the community or Chicago; the sheer volume of information establishes the archive on an international level as well. To prove this point, Miller motions to a fair-skinned brunette girl who busily flips through a file, typing on her computer all the while.

“This girl here is from the University of Manchester,” Miller remarks. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a sixthgrader from around here or a university kid from England; this collection’s for everybody. We’re internationally known!”

Woodson Regional Library. 9525 S. Halsted St. (312)747-6900. chipublib.org/branch/details/library/woodson-regional