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The Workshop in the History of Material Texts

Laura E. Helton (Delaware): "Access Restrictions and Secret Libraries: Virginia Lee and the Policing of Black Books"

Gainsboro Branch Library Reading Group

Monday, September 28, 2020, 5:15pm, via Zoom

Laura writes:
In the early twentieth century, African American women librarians in Raleigh, Atlanta, Greensboro, and other southern cities created a remarkable set of small archives that documented Black life. In Roanoke, Virginia, for example, Virginia Lee was a dedicated collector of books, ephemera, and clippings, building a “Negro Collection” inside the segregated Gainsboro Branch Library that today remains the largest accumulation of Africana in southwest Virginia. But like her counterparts elsewhere in the Jim Crow South, Lee operated against forbidding material and political conditions. At times she had to operate secretly, at one point even protecting the collection from a threat of destruction by white city leaders. This talk uncovers the clandestine collecting practices of Virginia Lee to show how branch libraries put record-keeping at the center of Black public life, often under threat of erasure. It argues that any theory of the Black archive must encompass not only the iconic collections in New York, Washington, or New Haven, but also the small collections, like Lee’s, that prioritized local access to Black texts. The “lady librarians” at the center of this project were good at keeping secrets, underscoring the risks—and the radicality—of Black archive-building during and after the nadir.


Laura E. Helton is an Assistant Professor of English and History at the University of Delaware. Her current book project, “Collecting and Collectivity: Black Archival Publics,” traces the making of African American archives and libraries to show how historical recuperation shaped forms of racial imagination in the early twentieth century. Her article on Dorothy Porter's cataloging work at Howard University, “On Decimals, Catalogs, and Racial Imaginaries of Reading” (PMLA­ 2019), won the Maria Stewart Journal Article Prize from the African American Intellectual History Association, the Donald G. Davis Award from the American Library Association, and honorable mention for the William Riley Parker Prize from the Modern Language Association. With Rafia Zafar, she is co-editing a special issue of African American Review on Arturo Schomburg, forthcoming this winter.  Helton's work has been supported by fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Bibliographical Society of America, the Carter G. Woodson Institute at the University of Virginia, the Center for Humanities and Information at Penn State, and the Scholars-in-Residence Program at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

We are virtual for fall 2020! All are welcome. If you would like to receive details on how to attend upcoming Zoom meetings, please sign up for our listserv using this link or visit the Workshop website.

The Workshop in the History of Material Texts is supported by the School of Arts and Sciences through the Department of English and hosted by the Penn Libraries. The co-directors of the seminar are Professor Zachary Lesser (English), Jerry Singerman (Penn Press), and John Pollack (Kislak Center, Penn Libraries).

Associated with the workshop is the book series in Material Texts published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, which includes many monographs that have emerged from presentations given at the workshop over the years.

For more information, please contact Philip Mogen.

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