The University of North Texas library has received a grant totaling $126,989 from the National Historic Publications and Records Commission to fund its digital archive. The Black Academy of Arts and Letters archive is home to over 1,800 archival materials spanning over 40 years of Black cultural expression, and soon, they will be made publicly available to us all.
Works include that of Dallas legends such as Erykah Badu, Kirk Franklin, and Margaret Walker. With the help of the NHPRC grant, these materials, some of which are unreleased, will be digitized and made ready for streaming.
“These are unique recordings,” Head of Special Collections Morgan Gieringer said. “They don’t exist anywhere else. They only exist in this collection.”
Gieringer also spoke to local North Texas news station, KERA about the importance of preserving the archives of marginalized communities.
“The larger goal that we’re working towards is to diversify the content of the Portal to Texas History. Because what we’re seeing now is sort of the repercussions of the very limited amount of collecting that was done to document the history of communities of color.”
In order for the project to launch seamlessly, both library students and staff work to view each recording, and add a detailed description into the database to make them easily searchable.
“For some time, archivists have been aware of this gap in collecting, but now what we’re seeing is also there’s a gap in what’s being digitized,” Gieringer continued.
The archival work being done at UNT is a part of a major boom in digitizing Black life.
“When people are searching in the Portal to Texas History, we want to provide a representative sample of primary source materials. Very few people have the resources to travel across the country to come here to look at this archive. We’re making a diverse array of materials accessible,” Gieringer said.
While digitizing these works is exciting, it’s also somewhat risky, as many of the materials within the archive are past their life expectancies. For example, magnetic tape media such as VHS, BetaCam and audio cassette tapes were made to last anywhere from 10-30 years. At this point, many of the recordings housed in the archive are approaching 40 years in age.
Risk aside, Gieringer hopes that the archive comes to be respected and appreciated.
“I’m hoping that people will get excited and say, ‘Gosh, I’ve never seen James Baldwin’s Amen Corner. I’m going to go online and watch it right now’,” she said. “I also think this collection is going to play an important role in the study of performing arts and the role of black artists.”
While the project has been two years in the making, it is slated to be completed by the end of 2023. What’s currently available in the archive can be found at The Portal to Texas History.