Black Radical Archive

Black Radical Archive Partner(s): Professor Brent Edwards
Department of English and Comparative Literature

Access: Private
Released: January 2010

The Black Radical Archive represents a unique platform for engaging students in the curation of rare archival materials. Its online repository, created by CCNMTL for English Professor Brent Edwards' course Black Radicalism and the Archive, houses images of archival materials that Professor Edwards and his students selected from the Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Professor Edwards places particular emphasis on self-archiving as an important component of activism. In his course, students are asked to closely explore, categorize, and analyze boxes of rare, unprocessed archival materials from the collections of three political activists—Hubert Harrison, C.L.R. James, and Amiri Baraka. Placing students in the role of an archivist, Professor Edwards has his class take digital pictures of particularly interesting archival materials and upload them along with metadata to the Black Radical Archive. Students treat each box of archival materials as their own set of records to explore and they contribute a "box description" to the Black Radical Archive in which they provide an overview of their analyzed materials and compare their findings to their peers.

Project Details

Scholars who have actively benefited from access to special collections in their own research are looking for practical ways to involve their students in the authenticity and excitement of analyzing primary source materials.  The Black Radical Archive facilitated just such involvement for the students enrolled in English Professor Brent Edwards’s course, Black Radicalism and the Archive. This innovative partnership between Professor Edwards, his students, Columbia's Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and CCNMTL is helping to define new uses of rare archival material in the classroom.

Though digital surrogates are sometimes faulted as replacements for tactile contact with rare objects, the Black Radical Archive leveraged digitization to drive hands-on engagement with physical collections. It emphasized the importance of physical inspection and selection of unique materials, even as it cultivated the advantages that digital surrogates of these materials offer for close and repeated inspection, easy access, and non-invasive annotation.

In his course Edwards focused on three important political activists whose archives are held at RBML:  Hubert Harrison, C.L.R. James, and Amiri Baraka.  When the course ran these archives were at various stages of processing; neither the James nor the Baraka papers had been processed.  Nonetheless, Edwards wanted his students to discover, categorize, annotate, and compare material from all three collections—developing primary materials-based research skills in the process. 

The Black Radical Archive allowed Professor Edwards to pre-stock selections from the collections, a process that entailed custom-order digitization on a just-in-time schedule more typical of e-reserves than archive digitization. Once this digital library was set up, Edwards's students were then asked to explore boxes of unprocessed material in the archives, take digital pictures of items they found of particular interest, and contribute additional records and images to the Black Radical Archive.  Students were also asked to upload ‘box descriptions’ that described and pondered the juxtaposition of items within their assigned box. The Black Radical Archive became a space where the class discovered and contributed archival images, and collectively pondered questions of context, preservation, and representation that are central to archiving. 

The Black Radical Archive does not aim to be a comprehensive representation of the archives it draws on, but, rather, an expanding documentation of scholarly engagements with these archives. It should thus raise awareness and interest in these rich collections, and, we hope, entice more teachers, students, and researchers into direct contact with archival holdings.

Related news:
Aug-2010: New Book on Digitization Features Black Radical Archive