DPLA Fall Update

By John Bracken, September 25, 2020.

Many of us are feeling a mix of anger, rage, sadness, and fear this fall, particularly this week in the wake of  Kentucky authorities’ refusal to hold to account the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor. At the Digital Public Library of America, we have been reflecting on our roles and responsibilities. We were founded, 10 years ago next week, with a mission to ensure equitable access to digital knowledge, and at this moment we feel an added urgency to make certain that our deeds align with our stated aims. 

In kickoff remarks at DPLAFest in 2019, I stated DPLA’s intent to focus on working with and uplifting narratives from communities traditionally not welcome in projects like ours. When we launched our strategy later that year, we committed to “empowering institutions and communities that have been historically marginalized, underserved, and underrepresented” and to work with existing and new partners to collect and promote diverse and inclusive collections and stories. Following the police murders of  Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd this year, our board articulated our responsibility toward equity and inclusion and to reject racism in all that we do. I later shared our plans to live up to that commitment and I want to update you on where some of that work stands.

Earlier this month we launched the Black Women’s Suffrage archival initiative with a set of partners that includes the Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library;  the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University; the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston; Charlotte Mecklenburg Library; Tuskegee University Archives; and Southern California Library. This collection provides access to 200,000 (and growing) archival materials that help tell the story of the critical role Black women played, and continue to play, in the movement to ensure voting rights and the American civil rights movement as a whole.  

We launched this project by bringing together over 600 people for Race, Power, and Curation, which featured a keynote by Dorothy J. Berry, the Digital Collections Program Manager at Houghton Library, Harvard University, on the importance of curating Black Collections. This event was preceded by Race, Gender, Politics, and History: Reconstructing Visibility of Black Women’s Activism, featuring historian Allison Robinson, from the University of Chicago, about teaching with digital exhibits, the University’s Ida B. Wells collection, and how digital artifacts can help reconstruct visibility. 

In the months ahead we will build on this work and introduce some new initiatives: 

  • From Black Women’s Suffrage to Black Lives Matter. Our third event in a series of  Black Women’s Suffrage programming is a collaboration with Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and will focus on the legacy and continued relevance of Black women’s political activism. (You can register for this October 29th event here.)
  • By the Quill of Her Pen. We have begun the process of compiling materials found in the Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection–letters, diaries, and other writings–as part of a new DPLA-published ebook project to be launched in 2021. (If you have materials you’d like to see included in this project, please get in touch with DPLA Community Manager Shaneé Murrain.) 
  • Spotlighting pandemic experiences. As the Covid-19 death toll in the U.S. climbs over 200,000, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities continue to be disproportionately affected, with mortality rates more than 3x that of white communities. We have begun to explore how we might contribute to uplifting the nation’s experiences as we face the crises of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and the movement for racial justice. (You can hear about some of Charlotte Mecklenburg Library’s work in this area at the October 29 webinar.) 
  • Supporting our partners. This summer the DPLA Hubs Network Council approved a commitment “to recognize and act on the need for diversity, representativeness, and respect in how we conduct the work of documenting and providing access to our shared history.” Some of our partners have begun to use this statement as the basis for discussions in their own institutions; we will do what we can to help our partners as they turn that commitment into action.

In June, Vice Provost for University Libraries and University Librarian (and DPLA board member) Elaine L. Westbrooks laid out the legacy that her institution confronts. Her charge is relevant to DPLA and our partners, as well:

“The University Libraries, like any institution, operates through a set of legacy systems that have been in place for decades. These systems implicitly and explicitly perpetuate inequity because they have been traditionally centered on whiteness and patriarchy as a default. They permeate everything that we do—what we collect, how we describe it, how we deliver services, how we organize our operational functions and design our spaces, how we structure our budget, where we invest resources, how we recruit, what we choose to elevate and highlight.”

We know that to dismantle the legacy systems of white supremacy we need to adjust how we undertake all of our work: making materials from the nation’s libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural institutions accessible to all;  providing a library-controlled ebooks marketplace and platform; and bringing together library leaders and practitioners. To make this shift, we may also have to change how and with whom we work, as not everyone will be able to make this journey with us. I am also aware that as a young, independent nonprofit with a mission of equity and access we are privileged to make statements of such commitment, and that as such, we have a responsibility to ally ourselves with individuals and institutions taking on this restorative work.

We realize that the “of America” part of our name brings with it a responsibility to own up to our nation’s history.  Over the past few months, we have been inspired and energized by the stories of Black women activists. As Ida B. Wells Barnett said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” All of us at DPLA look forward to doing our part to ensure that everyone has access to materials and stories that represent our nation in all of its glory and all of its brutality.