The Role of a Harlem Archivist: Helping People Connect to History

As America seeks answers for tomorrow, the archivist is there.

A fascinating insight into the role of an archivist. 



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A long time ago, a young man went looking for Harlem. As the subway rumbled while passing through the underground system of New York City, the young man asked a porter, “Sir, do you know where Harlem is?” The porter replied, “Sure, Harlem. Son, you can’t miss it if you just keep heading north.”

Every day, people walk up and down Lenox or Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem, seeking out the city. The sights, sounds, smells, and excitement find people, and they want to know more. When asked about Harlem and Upper Manhattan, they head to the archives of City College.

I’m an archivist and what I do is help the people of the city connect to the living history of New York.

What Is An Archive?

An archive is a physical repository for documents and information, but the dust never settles in these stacks. An archivist works continuously in an ongoing process like preserving history, cataloging materials, receiving new donations, and answering research requests.

The Archives and Special Collections Division at the City College of New York is a university archive housing a collection of history that tells the story of America’s first free institution of higher education. That includes the history of the Free Academy, the predecessor of the City University of New York, and the history of Harlem and Upper Manhattan.

A Type of Detective Work

The work in an archive is best described as an ongoing process. Archivists collect, catalog, and preserve various historical materials like manuscripts, letters, records, journals, objects, and rare books — from the first American flag made in Japan (in 1857, when U.S. flags featured thirty-one stars), to Congressman Charles Rangel’s legislative files, to ceremonial battle axes and Japanese paper lanterns.

An exciting aspect of day-to-day operations includes answering inquiries for researchers. We receive e-mails and letters from individuals requesting historical records about yearbook photos, academic collections, architectural drawings, faculty profiles, sports records, and historical figures associated with New York, City College, and Harlem. This type of detective work keeps archivists on their feet and familiar with the collection.

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An Archivist’s Mission

An archivist’s mission is two-fold. First, the archivist works to protect historic and significant materials. The second part of the archivist’s mission is to make historic and significant materials available to researchers.

For instance, the Harlem Development Archive may receive a set of architectural plans, a collection of letters, and an envelope of photographs of the many stone grotesques that have adorned the historical landmarks that make up the college’s campus.

Once the collection has been cataloged and secured, the second part of the archivist’s mission begins. They shift to the role of a curator to come up with a plan to showcase the newly donated materials. We emphasize library-based programming and outreach that highlights the wellspring of culture and backgrounds that have passed through the streets of New York. The archivist’s job is to make connections with the pre-existing collections and use these materials to compliment incoming donations.

The Unique Wealth of New York City

A New York City archive serves one of the most diverse cities in the world, and the archival staff has the privilege of working with and teaching colleagues from all over the globe. Ongoing projects have included hosting delegations from Shimoda, Japan, processing a collection for New York’s Zoroastrian community, organizing the annual Women Make Art show, and creating exhibits highlighting the contributions of Black Americans to the literary political, and journalistic fields.

The world and its multitude of backgrounds are here in Harlem and New York City. It’s in the air we breathe on the streets. Maintaining and highlighting the collection in the archives is not just a professional act of labor. It is a joyous celebration of the unique wealth in New York, the United States, and the world.

The archive’s mission in Harlem is attached to the college’s role in higher education, and that is to provide a community with the academic and professional resources to succeed. As an archivist, I try to go a step further and aim to engage our students and researchers academically and professionally and help build a well-rounded experience by celebrating the myriad of backgrounds in the city.

As America seeks answers for tomorrow, the archivist is there, ready to present the innumerable resources of stories waiting to be told in our collection.

A special thanks to Tabor Hollingsworth for working with me on this story.