The Price Is NOT Right: Selling Black Press Archives

In many ways Cornel University’s library purchase of the New York Amsterdam News’ archive is “old news.” Now over two years, since the sale, the guide for the collection was recently completed this past spring in April and can be found here.  However, like many other Black Press scholars and researchers of African American history, I was unaware of Cornell’s acquisition of this trove of images until I stumbled over the guide while conducting research on Amsterdam News’ society columnist, Gerri Majors (née Geraldyn Hodges-Dismond).  When I read the announcement I experienced the same emotions learning that Viacom had bought BETTime Inc. had purchased Essence Magazine  and  L’Oreal had acquired Carol’s Daughter’s.  The purchase of Black-owned businesses by white companies is, for me, always fraught with complexity.  While I am certainly in no position to judge any of these business decisions, it does give me pause to critically consider the implication of products, media and services produced for Black people that are now under the purview of white-dominated corporate interest.

In the case of the Amsterdam News, my feelings are even more mixed.  Black Press archives, as BPRC member, Moira Hinderer points out are vulnerable institutions.  Often underfunded and understaffed, Black newspapers have a difficult time preserving and curating archival records to tell their own histories.  In many cases, it’s up to concerned people and individual libraries to insure that Black newspapers, which are no longer being published, are collected and preserved.  Sadly, the reality of staying afloat financially is the primary concern for most contemporary Black newspapers.  In this sense the Amsterdam News’ decision to sell their photo archive might be viewed as a practical one as the revenue garnered from the sale almost certainly provided financial relief for the company.

Yet, as a researcher I would be remiss in not expressing the sense of excitement I feel at having a guide to the archive and knowing that images from the Amsterdam News are readily available at an institution with the resources to preserve and maintain the collection.   I imagine that soon many of these photographs will be digitized and made available to the public.  Nonetheless, the acquisition of a Black newspaper archive does not always mean better public access.  We see this in the case of the Atlanta Daily World  archive which was purchased by Emory University in 2008.  According to the guide, the collection remains unprocessed and located at an off-site location, though the records appear to be available to researchers on request.

To be clear, Black newspapers are not the only papers choosing to sell their photo archives.  All contemporary newspapers live in tough times, where for many, each year they are able to stay alive is a gift.  Selling newspapers’ old photos can be quite lucrative.   Thus, I can certainly understand why newspapers sell their archives, though I wish that Black newspapers could find other ways to generate revenue.  In some cases, newspapers broker deals which allow them to retain copyright and the intellectual property of documents or photographs.  I can only hope this is true of the agreements the Amsterdam News and Daily World struck with Cornell and Emory.

Despite the financial benefits,  I can’t help but feel that a more appropriate place for the Amsterdam News and Daily World’s archival collections are at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture or the  Black Press Archives at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University  and at the Woodruff (AUC) Library Archives for Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse and Spelman Colleges.  Like the Black Press, the Schomburg, Moorland-Spingarn and Woodruff are venerable Black institutions which have been at the core of the African American and African Diapsoric experience in the United States.  Not only do these institutions possess a shared commitment to documenting and giving voice to the historical Black experience, they also continue to support contemporary Black newspapers and other Black organizations and businesses.

Ironically, the Black identity, which I argue makes these institutions ideal for African American newspaper archives, is what makes it difficult for them to obtain the records.    In short, the crux of the problem is that historically Black colleges and universities’ (HBCUs) libraries and research centers, relative to their white counter-parts, often lack the budgets necessary to first, acquire Black Press collections and second, to digitize and maintain them.  Thus, it is not a matter of lack of desire for these collections but rather fiscal capacity which prevents  Black institutions from acquiring them.  On the other hand, elite and predominantly white academic and public institutions, while to be congratulated for recognizing the significance of Black Press history, are further enriched by their procurement of Black Press collections.  Researchers’ use and grants from organizations such as the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitize and preserve the archive enhance institutions already flush with wealth.

Black organizations, then, the very institutions that stand the most to gain by maintaining and holding on to Black Press collections are unable to acquire or preserve them.  For this reason efforts must be made to insure that Black Press archival collections continue to be held by either the newspapers themselves or other Black owned and controlled institutions.   A model for this proposition is the archives of the AFRO American Newspapers in Baltimore.   John “Jake” Oliver great-grandson of founder, John H. Murphy, Sr., CEO and current publisher of the paper is to be commended for his commitment to retaining control over the newspaper’s archives.  Run by archivist,  JaZette Marshburn, the AFRO archives have partnered with a variety of institutions and organizations including Johns Hopkins University, Project Gado and Google to digitize and make their archival collections available to the public while finding innovative ways to generate income.

In spite of the short-term financial gain that Black newspapers achieve through the sale of their archives, the long-term consequence of not controlling their own history and the loss of potential revenue down the road may not make the transaction worth the figurative and literal price.  Consequently, Black Press archives are left all the more poor when they choose to sell their collections.