The true value of the NAACP’s archive – is it just for historians? What about family historians and educators as well?

NAACP logo

One of the national archives I would love to delve into online belongs to the NAACP. From a family historian and genealogist’s point of view, this archive ranks alongside the Freedman’s Records Archive in terms of significance for African Americans. Its contents, collected over its hundred-plus years of existence, is simply priceless.

It’s an archive I’ve looked for on both Ancestry.com and FamilySearch. The archive isn’t available on either service. This, I have to admit, really surprized me. So I began to wonder if the NAACP had digitized its archive at all. Naturally, I took to Google to find out. And lo and behold, the answer was, well, ‘kind of’…and ‘no’.

I found this press release via ProQuest: “NAACP Archive goes digital” https://www.proquest.com/en-US/aboutus/pressroom/11/20111107.shtml .

The short version of the story is that the NAACP teamed up with ProQuest in 2011 to digitize over 2 million documents (no mention was made of the images in its archive).   So I really got excited. 2 million documents – just think about all those names, historical context, information any African American family historian would love to peruse online! I know that ProQuest is a commercial venture targeted at the research community. The press release did hold out one glimmer of hope for public access to the archive; the Library of Congress. Could I find what I was looking for there?

Now part of this archive is available in the Library of Congress, saved on microfilm. I hoped that the Library of Congress might have digitized a substantial part of the collection. So I went to surf over to the Library of Congress’s site full of expectation.

Why all this interest in the NAACP’s archive  in the first place? Well, I have a few distant relations from the tangent branches of the Sheffey and Roane families – Carpenters, Hills, Fields, Bagbys and Meltons – who were quite active in the NAACP in its early years. I wanted to find out about their involvement. I wanted to see how they had fought the oppression which influenced their day-to-day lives and those of their respective communities. I wanted a more personal and informative glimpse into their lives. And, if possible, pictures.

NAACP: A Century in the Fight for Freedom page on the Library of Congress websiteA quick Google search on the term “NAACP archives Library of Congress” gave me this link: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/naacp/ It’s a special sub-site on the Library of Congress website celebrating the Centenary of the NAACP. It’s a start – that’s what I told myself. But I have to admit a profound sense of disappointment at the lack of materials available. What’s there is historically significant, and kind of what you’d expect to find; information about the NAACP’s founders, the key players of its 100 years’ existence, and key moments in time in the organization’s history. And that’s about it. But then something tugged at the back of my mind about that ProQuest press release. The proverbial light came on and I had one of those ‘oh no’ moments.

I went back to the press release – the thing that had initially got me so excited in the first place – and re-read it. And two things hit me at once. The first was the realization that the archive had indeed been digitized and was available through ProQuest itself. The second was a key sentence in the press release: “This archive will provide a valuable service to historians and activists alike.”

And therein lies the essential problem for me. Yes, this is an archive of historical importance. But it is so much more than that. Why such a limited view? Why the assumption that only a limited audience would be interested in it? I wish the NAACP had been advised better before striking this deal.

This archive is a treasure trove for family historians, genealogists, teachers, sociologists, communities, African American history academics and students, political science academics and students – and more.  For every famous name that features in the archive, there are countless more who worked at the grass route level. I know my ancestors did. These documents evidence our ancestors’ contributions to the struggles for equality. That fact alone raises this collection above being merely one of interest to historians and activists. Under the current arrangement with ProQuest, the likelihood is that it’s very unlikely I can ever access the documents that reference my ancestors because I don’t have the academic ‘passport’ to access ProQuest’s online resources. The general public won’t be able to access it. That’s wrong.

I can’t share the NAACP-related stories about my ancestors for the simple reason that I can’t access the documents that would provide that vital information necessary to tell those stories. My feeling is that the more people who can access this archive and find out about their ancestors contributions to the NAACP, and write about them or share them in other ways – translates into a ‘win’ for the NAACP. Every mention underlines its importance. It’s a shame that this simply isn’t possible under the current arrangements for its digital archives. It is a genuine missed opportunity.

This archive also has an educational value. It would have formed a perfect basis for creating online courses and/or modules about the African American struggles for equality from the foundation of the NAACP to the present day. These would be courses and modules hosted online and geared to primary, secondary, university and post-graduate study. Again, another lost opportunity.

I’m a firm believer that the owners and curators of archives need to stop thinking of archives with such incredibly limited views and solely within a historical context – with an assumption that only academic historians will be interested or able to appreciate the value of the information.  It’s time for archives to be thought of in a much wider social context. It’s time to think about re-envisioning access to socially important document and image collections and to think of the widest possible audiences for them.

My main hope, at the moment, is that the NAACP’s deal with ProQuest isn’t exclusive. And that either ProQuest or the NAACP can make these records available, as a specialist collection, to the leading online family history websites. In addition to this, that a deal could be struck with the Library of Congress to develop online learning resources in the form of eLearning courses or modules.

I have a feeling that approaches like the ones I’ve outlined above not only ensure the sustainability of archives, through supporting a practice of widening public access to archives…but can bring in a rich mix of revenue from a myriad of sources.

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