This is the latest post in our new series Archival Innovators, which aims to raise awareness of the individuals, institutions, and collaborations that are helping to boldly chart the future of the the archives profession and set new precedents for the role of the archivist in society.
In this installation of Archival Innovators, SAA Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) member Rachael Woody interviews Bridgett Kathryn Pride, Reference Librarian of the Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division and the Art and Artifacts Division of the Schomburg Center for Research inBlack Culture, one of four research libraries within the New York Public Library system.
Bridgett is a part of the inaugural class of fellows Rare Book School for Cultural Heritage, focusing on Black collections and zine making. Bridgett received her MLIS, and a MA in History from Simmons University in 2018. She was a part of the Diversity, Equity, Race, Accessibility, and Identity in LIS (DERAIL) forum, and served as the 2018 project manager. Bridgett was awarded the 2018 Kenneth Shaffer Outstanding Student Award for student leadership. She studies American women and their intersectional identities with gender, race, and class in the 19th and 20th centuries.
RW: How did you get into archives, or why archives?
BKP: Actually Rachael, you inspired me quite a bit. I am not sure that I would have taken the path into library science, and then archives without your suggestion when I was in undergrad. Once you recommend I look into the field, everything just sort of fell into place. While I was earning my BA in Literature I was working in the university library and bookstore and loved it. I remember being really interested in learning about book preservation, especially from an “arts and crafts” perspective. I was romanced by the idea that rare books, and historical documents needed specific kinds of care to last in perpetuity, and had to know more.
After finishing my Literature degree I took some time off, then went back to school to earn a BA in History, my other love. Once I finished there, I went straight into library school for a double masters in LIS/Archives, and History. I was thankful to find a program at Simmons University that provided a pathway to complete both degrees together. It was in studying history that I realized people sharing my identity were hard to come by. I had to work extra hard to learn about queer Black women, and decided that the only way to make sure this problem is addressed is by doing the work myself. I began focusing my historical study in grad school on Black women artists and activists.
RW: How did you get your gig at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture?
BKP: The same way as anyone else! I applied when I found the job posting. I knew that this was my dream job! I get to help researchers navigate collections created by Black folks, and I get to work with art and other historical artifacts. I remember being brought to tears during the end of my interview when Tammi Lawson, the curator of the Art and Artifacts Division said her favorite part of working at the Schomburg was that you get to celebrate being Black every day. In our field, that is dominated by white supremacy, hearing that was like being given breath after being on the brink of drowning.
RW: Please describe the work you do there.
BKP: As the reference librarian, I meet with researchers to discuss their projects, teach instruction sessions for visiting groups and classes, build research guides on specific topics, and manage the public services workflow for my divisions; including scheduling research appointments and monitoring the reading room.
RW: Please describe the collections or one of your favorite collections.
BKP: Our collections are created by and about people of African descent. The collection was first imagined by Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a Puerto Rican born Black man who was told by one of his teachers that Black people did not have their own history, and did not create anything worthy of study. He then spent his life collecting “Vindicating Evidences” of the intelligence, creativity, and genius of Black people around the globe.
I have SO MANY favorite collections, from the Black Panther Party Harlem Branch Files, to the Storme Delarverie Papers, to two short letters written by Nella Larsen discussing the “small get together” she would throw before the Cullen-DuBois wedding (that ultimately none of her guests would attend). One thing that I love about our collections is how much they feed into one another. For example, we have both Lorraine Hansberry and Langston Hughes’ papers. Each collection includes a folder of correspondence that was written to the other. You can almost read them side-by-side to see their beautiful friendship. One of my favorite items is a play bill that Langston sent Lorraine from when he went to see A Raisin in the Sun, the title of which is from Langston’s poem “Harlem”. On the cover, he wrote that he saw the play and watched the entire audience “cry all around” him because it was so beautiful.
RW: You were selected as a Rare Books School Mellon Cultural Heritage Fellow. Can you tell us more about that, the process you went through to become a fellow, and the work you’ll be doing as a fellow?
BKP: I am a part of the inaugural class of 15 fellows who work in multicultural collections in the US. I found out about the fellowship because the curator of the Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division Is a Rare Book School instructor. She had sent out the announcement that this fellowship had just been funded and if we were interested, we should apply. Because of my interest in Black zines, and how they have been used by the community to spread information, I was eager to apply. There was an application with several essays about why I was applying and how I intend to share what I learn in our field, then a few interviews. The object of the fellowship is for us to develop skills for documenting and interpreting visual and textural materials in special collections and archives, to raise awareness within professional communities about the significance of inclusive, multicultural collections, build connection with diverse communities and public through strategic programing, outreach and advocacy, and advance our careers by establishing new pathways and skills for personal growth. Since the Corona Virus hit, all of our in person classes, conferences, and meetings have been postponed, however we have been meeting monthly for guest speakers, and to discuss articles. Rare Book School has also been hosting other open events that many of the fellows have attended.
RW: You recently created Exploring Black LGBTQ Studies in the Schomburg Center’s Archive, a libguide. Can you please describe your work on this project? Where did the idea to create the libguide come from? What inspired it?
BKP: One of my main jobs as a reference librarian is to teach people how to navigate the collections at the Schomburg. One popular theme I address in both instruction sessions and research consultations is how to identify collections created by queer Black folks. Because I am a part of this community, I was more than thrilled to build a guide to help researchers access these collections. The year I started at the Schomburg Center, NYPL was celebrating Stone Wall 50, the 50th anniversary of the StoneWall Riots. They had received some grant money to process collections by and about queer folks, and made a big push to provide access to LGBT+ collection materials. However, I found that it was hard to locate Black people in these collections. Furthermore, it was really hard to locate Black women. My goal then became to highlight the collections at the Schomburg Center to address the violence done by excluding Black voices.
RW: What barriers or challenges did/do you face?
BKP: At first I thought I was wrong! I kept thinking that there was no way that they would have forgotten to include Black people. I kept thinking, maybe I just am bad at searching. But then realized that I was not the problem, the folks making the decisions on what archival materials to collect didn’t think outside of their own identities. Then, I also discovered that while there were collections that specifically discussed LGBT+ or queer studies, there were lots of collections at the Schomburg Center that were created by queer folks that could not be located using search terms dealing with queerness. For example, you will not find James Baldwin’s papers when searching “Black Gay Authors”, only “Black Authors.” I discovered that even at the Schomburg, parts of people’s identities had been erased.
I was also disappointed to learn about the general lack of collecting that focused on all members of the LGBTQ+ community. Specifically, trans folks are not represented, asexual folks, are missing, and so many others are not represented. Over all, while previous work to document LGBTQ+ stories were focused largely on cis gay White men, the Schomburg also appears to have a bias for cis gay Black men.
RW: What worked? What didn’t work? Were there any surprises in the process of developing your work, or lessons learned that you can share with us?
BKP: I struggled with how to explain the issue that some well known queer folks would not be findable using the guide. (See James Bladwin example). After many revisions, I settled on just being explicit about what the “Queer Studies” subject heading meant, rather than explaining what it excluded. The other part I was surprised by was that non-Schomburg NYPL folks had lots of thoughts and feeling about using the word “queer”, which I heavily identify with. At the end of the day, I ended up changing the guide title, removing the word “queer” in most instances, and focusing on the fact that no mater if the word is queer, or LGBT+, this guide focusing on Black queer folks was now Out in the world.
RW: Where would you like to see the work continue?
BKP: I would like to see a review of our subject headings used on collections that have not been identified as “Queer studies”. Labeling someone as a “Gay Black Author” is important and valuable for a lot of our researchers.
RW: What tips do you have for budding innovators?
BKP: Find what you are passionate about and go from there! Our field is in a transition period. We need to be thinking outside of the box to share our collections in creative ways so that people can continue to see their value. Right now I am doing that with research guides and zines. I am sure there are many other ways to engage with users based on other interests.
RW: In your own words, how would you describe the importance of archival records?
BKP: Archives show us the important journeys of people living their lives. Through archives we see a snapshot of time and place in the materials that were kept. It is a unique experience for every person based upon what they valued. Archival records are as diverse as the people in the world. It is our job to make sure that we are allowing these stories to be available for future generations, and that this diversity is captured.
RW: What is your favorite part of the job?
BKP: I love teaching! I recently started leading zine workshops at the Schomburg to connect young users with the concept of the archive. It brings my heart so much joy to see the faces of Black and Brown learners see themselves reflected in history, not as enslaved people, but as innovators, creators, and activists. That is priceless!
RW: What’s next for you?
BKP: Lots of things! I am about to publish a new research guide on the history of Black protest as it is documented at the Schomburg. [The guide was published on September 21, 2020–after this interview–and is linked here.] I am working with my team on reopening plans, and learning the best ways to teach instruction sessions online. I am working on a few blog posts for NYPL, so I can start completing my own research again, and I am hoping to collaborate with my colleagues on a few other new projects. The wish list of projects and programs is never ending. I need more hours in the week to do everything I am interested in.
RW: How can people connect with you to learn more about your work?
Do you know an Archival Innovator who should be featured on ArchivesAWARE? Send us your suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org!