John Hay Library curatorial staff have worked with Brown's increasingly diverse students and faculty to build special collections that meet their changing scholarly needs. Malana Krongelb, a Class of 2019 graduate, spent many years curating a collection of zines that later became part of the Pembroke Center archives. Photo: Nick Dentamaro/Brown University

With new special collections policy, John Hay Library aims to diversify the historical canon

The John Hay Library’s new collection policy is intended to support new trends in scholarship on campus and to diversify the personal and community stories told in Brown’s archives and special collections.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Whose stories are worth preserving?

That’s a question curators at Brown University’s John Hay Library have pondered since 1912, when they first began building a special collections archive — a repository of documents, art and artifacts that capture moments and lives throughout human history. 

In recent years, staff at the Hay Library — today the gateway for special collections and archives at Brown — began to ponder that question anew, as they wondered what important stories the University collections might be leaving out.

“The Hay has absolutely incredible collections that have been built very thoughtfully over many decades,” said Amanda Strauss, associate University librarian for special collections. “But curators were always collecting for the Brown University of the time. Guided by its strategic plan and its Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, Brown has transformed as an institution in the last decade, and the Hay should transform along with it.”

To determine the future direction of special collections at Brown, Strauss and her colleagues spent months engaged in conversation with Brown faculty, staff and students and with experts in their field. The result is a revised Library collection policy, finalized in Spring 2021, that establishes six new core collecting directions, outlines guidelines for sustainable collecting practices, and creates new avenues for collecting and archiving in partnership with organizations in the surrounding Rhode Island community.

“The John Hay Library is a rich trove of amazing materials built up over generations, but the collection as a whole lacked definition,” said University Librarian Joseph Meisel. “We needed to determine the areas where the library’s resources could have the greatest impact on studying important scholarly questions. Amanda and the curatorial team took up this challenge with tremendous passion and professionalism. Their work lays a new foundation for the Hay Library as a center of research excellence and academic distinction at Brown.” 

Strauss said the new policy simultaneously builds on the existing collection’s strengths, responds to changing demand among an increasingly diverse student body and faculty, and diversifies the personal and community stories the collection tells.

“In the future, when scholars reckon with today’s global issues and events, they will turn to libraries and archives,” Strauss said. “It matters in a fundamental way which stories we choose to preserve. If we leave out certain communities’ voices, future generations of scholars might leave them out, too.”

A University-wide conversation

Together with members of the Academic Priorities Committee chaired by Brown Provost Richard M. Locke, faculty such as Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice Director Anthony Bogues, and students across campus, the curatorial team considered what the library should and shouldn’t collect moving forward. 

Strauss said there were countless questions to consider: Should the University collect a broad selection of materials from across the globe and academic spectrum, or should it establish a small number of collecting strengths to build upon? How could it collect materials from historically underrepresented communities in a non-extractive, mutually beneficial way? And given the vast amount of physical and digital space needed to maintain Library archives and special collections, how could it pivot to a more sustainable collecting practice?

After more than a year of research and exploration, the team devised a plan to concentrate collecting within six areas: Global Lavender Voices, Ideology and Power, Military and Society, Performance and Entertainment, Popular Literature, and the University and Beyond. They also established three priority research themes in the sciences that overlap well with those core focuses: Climate Change, Collections as Data, and Health and History. 

In addition, staff made a plan to diversify the geographic areas from which they collected. While the Library’s current collections come from across the globe, North America and Europe are overrepresented; now, staff will focus more heavily on collecting materials from South America, Africa and Asia.

Strauss said the new collection policy is partly a response to changing demand among faculty and students — a change brought about by growing diversity in the Brown community.

In 1912, when Brown established its special collections, white men from educated families made up most of the student body. The University’s archive boasted strong collections of American and European historical documents, likely reflecting student academic interests and personal experiences at the time. Today, the story is different: Students of color make up 45% of Brown’s undergraduate Class of 2024, and a growing percentage of faculty members come from historically underrepresented groups. Students’ and faculty members’ academic interests are as diverse as their identities, ranging from the history of the Black women’s suffrage movement to the underground queer science-fiction scene in the 1960s. When searching for a concentration, undergraduates now have 80 to choose from — and they’re also free to build their own.

“As campus continues to diversify, we continue to hear from faculty, students and staff whose voices are not authentically depicted in, or are missing from, the archives,” Strauss said. “As we determined our existing strengths and designed a new collection policy, we paid close attention not only to what was missing, but also to how we could support trends in scholarship on campus.”

“ In the U.S. and all over the world, we are now seeing people reckon with parts of our history that are left out of the traditional narrative. Scholars are turning to libraries and archives to unearth those stories. We need to do our own stock-taking to ensure those stories can be found. ”

Amanda Strauss Associate University librarian for special collections

Curators have already begun to collect with the new policy, and with student and faculty needs in mind. A recently acquired collection of Puerto Rican playwright José Rivera’s personal papers has been the subject of close study by students in a handful of graduate-level courses in theatre arts and performance studies. According to Heather Cole, head of special collections instruction at the Hay Library, a collection of zines curated by Class of 2019 graduate Malana Krongelb has proven enormously helpful for undergraduate classes across the academic spectrum.

“Malana Krongelb’s collection helps communicate to students that we collect contemporary materials along with the historical things one might expect to find in an archive,” Cole said. “In addition, I think it's very powerful to show that curators aren't the only people building collections. Malana worked with us to identify what materials to collect and to determine how to categorize them.”

Krongelb was far from the only student leading archival work at Brown. Archivists at the Hay Library are currently working with Keisha-Khan Perry, an associate professor of Africana studies, and students in her Spring 2021 course Archiving the African Diaspora, to create and process the personal papers of the late Professor of Africana studies Anani Dzidzienyo. The Afro-Latin American scholar died in 2020, leaving behind decades of internationally recognized scholarly work, correspondence with political, academic and musical leaders, and rare recordings of Latin American music. His collection overlaps with three of the new collecting focuses. 

“The students, the librarians and I have had conversations about the power and politics around making acquisitions, and how the decisions we make about what to keep or throw away could influence future research and conversations,” Perry said. “I tell my students, ‘We get to decide what is important.’ And it’s so valuable to me that the Library believes that too — they say, ‘You say this is important? OK. It’s important.’”

A community archive

Strauss stressed that the Hay Library’s new collection policy won’t just change what it collects. It will also change how it collects.

Sustainability, for example, will be one key consideration for future collecting. Record-keeping, whether physical or digital, by nature requires a hefty amount of electricity use. Paper archives need to be stored in light- and climate-controlled environments to ensure they don’t succumb to mold or yellowing. And digital archives live on servers that could overheat and stop functioning if they aren’t kept in air-conditioned rooms.

In keeping with Brown’s Sustainability Strategic Plan, the Hay Library is committed to reducing its carbon footprint, and part of that involves collecting more thoughtfully, Strauss said.

“Records from the 20th and 21st centuries are voluminous in a way that past records weren’t,” Strauss said. “It’s not environmentally or fiscally sustainable for us to collect absolutely everything.” 

Sustainable collecting might also mean working with local communities, such as Native American tribes and cultural heritage groups, to process and steward their own archival collections. In the future, Hay Library staff hope to create “post-custodial” archives — collections that stay within the originating community rather than within the Hay Library, and that may or may not continue to be the subject of scholarly research.

“Many communities have been stewarding their own records for generations, and they have all kinds of different traditions and knowledge,” Strauss said. “Librarians have their own methods, and those methods are different, not better. We have a lot to learn about archival work from surrounding communities.”

Felicia Bartley, a Native American and Indigenous studies fellow at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, said that within many Native American tribes, some historically significant materials are meant to decay rather than stay preserved. And many Indigenous peoples consider their community members to be the archival experts, rather than those at academic institutions.

“I think it would be incredibly helpful for libraries, archives and museums to reach out to the tribal communities within their region to begin a new lifelong relationship,” Bartley said. “They can learn valuable things from their neighbors' specific practices — namely, that there is not one universal approach to collecting, preservation and conservation.”

Recognizing that libraries, archives and museums across the globe possess countless artifacts that once belonged to Indigenous peoples and were taken without permission, Bartley is working with other graduate fellows, Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative staff and Hay Library staff to ensure Brown acquires future special collections in a non-extractive manner. 

“We've started drafting acquisition forms that explicitly require consent from Indigenous communities' leadership,” Bartley said. “Our draft acquisition documents address concepts like cultural patrimony, intellectual property, cultural protocols and restrictions.”

Bartley and her colleagues are also leading a series of seminars on topics such as Native American sovereignty and advancing principles outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials.

Strauss said that moving forward, the Hay Library will invite members of diverse communities within and outside of campus to weigh in on its existing collections. That kind of community-engaged archival work, she learned from conversations with Brown faculty and archivist peers at historically Black colleges and universities, could help generate important insights on centuries-long global issues and struggles.

“Our new collection policy isn’t just about new materials we are bringing in; it’s also about bringing in new knowledge and perspectives on the materials we already have,” she said. “In the U.S. and all over the world, we are now seeing people reckon with parts of our history that are left out of the traditional narrative. Scholars are turning to libraries and archives to unearth those stories. We need to do our own stock-taking to ensure those stories can be found.”