African American Print Culture: An Interview with Laura Helton

This is an interview with Robert Greene II, the lead associate editor of Black Perspectives, and Laura Helton, whose article “On Decimals, Catalogs, and Racial Imaginaries of Reading,” won the AAIHS’s 2020 Maria Stewart Journal Article Prize. Helton holds a joint appointment with the Department of History and the Department of English at the University of Delaware, and specializes in American literature and history of the twentieth century with an emphasis on African American print culture and public humanities. Her research and teaching interests include archival studies, material texts, race and memory, gender and sexuality, and the literary history of social movements. Her current book project, Collecting and Collectivity: Black Archival Publics, 1900-1950, explores the emergence of African American archives and libraries to show how historical recuperation shaped forms of racial imagination in the early twentieth century. Follow her on Twitter:@lheltonian. 

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Robert Greene II: Talk a bit about your essay. What do you believe is the importance of African American print culture to broader African American intellectual history in the twentieth century?

Laura Helton: I imagine that many readers of this blog have visited the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University and, on the way to the reference desk, have passed through the “catalog room,” a small antechamber filled with card catalog cabinets. But how many of us in recent years would have paused in that room to browse the catalog or consider its history? Inaugurated in 1930 by librarian Dorothy B. Porter, this card catalog served for much of the twentieth century as a rare and indispensable portal to African American print culture—and a more radical intervention in Black intellectual history than might seem obvious at first glance. In my essay, I reconstruct the creation of this catalog to show how Porter contravened the routine misfiling of Blackness in prevailing information systems and designed a capacious taxonomy to order Black knowledge. She rewrote Dewey decimals, created bibliographies, and fielded research inquiries from across the African diaspora. She built public access to books “by and about the Negro” at a moment when a majority of Black readers were barred from libraries. In so doing, she fueled a broader sensibility of what a Black archive—or what she once called a “literary museum”—might afford. It was pioneering intellectual work that, over the course of her four-decade career at Howard, helped create a scaffolding for the field of Black Studies. 1

Unlike thinkers who worked out their ideas in traditional intellectual forms such as monographs, treatises, or sermons, Porter’s authorship often took shape in lists and catalogs. Those genres can be difficult for historians to critically interpret, and Porter herself only rarely drew attention to her own interventions. In occasional interviews, she described her struggles with standard library tools, especially the Dewey Decimal Classification. She noted that in most libraries in the 1920s through 1940s, only two Dewey numbers were typically used to classify works on Black subjects: 326 for slavery, and 325.26 for the “Negro Question” under the category “colonies and migration.” Like many Black librarians, Porter rejected the number 325.26. But rather than simply move books to a different classification number, Porter took the additional (and unauthorized) step of rewriting the Dewey decimals to invent her own classification scheme.

That’s usually where the account of Porter’s radical librarianship ends, but I wanted to know more. How did her classification system work? What ideas did it represent? I started to dig deeper into Porter’s story in 2012, when her collections were becoming more accessible to researchers. Her personal papers had been held privately by her daughter, Constance Porter Uzelac, but Yale University had recently purchased them at auction. Porter’s administrative papers, held by the University Archives at Moorland-Spingarn, were partially restricted, but Dr. Clifford Muse generously agreed to review unprocessed materials so that I and other researchers could access her early files.

These files included drafts of Porter’s homemade classification system. Although I was trained as an archivist and I have a library science degree, I had to teach myself a lot more than I already knew about cataloging in order to understand what I was seeing. By comparing taxonomies, studying the 1939 Catalogue of Books in the Moorland Foundation, and using library cataloging tools (such as OCLC’s Dewey Browser), I could trace exactly which Dewey numbers Porter had changed—and how those changes challenged conventional library practices of the era. Through seemingly technical emendations, she created a classification system that refracted Black thought. She wove into her taxonomy Carter G. Woodson’s approaches to Black history, for example, and the diasporic geographies mapped by William Henry Ferris. She built information systems for Black Studies long before it was codified as a field.

At Howard, she was in daily contact with students and faculty, but she also served a much wider public. In the words of Zachery R. Williams, she was “African America’s national librarian.” People wrote to her from around the world, asking every size and kind of question about Black history and culture. Her administrative records include the carbon copies of her replies to these queries, and what they show is that for nearly every correspondent, she composed a short bibliography of recommended readings. These small bibliographies were comprised not of rare books or manuscripts someone would have to come to Washington to consult, but of in-print books that could be found in any public library—if only they were cataloged in a way that made them searchable in terms of Black content. Porter understood that access was not only about whether a library was open to Black readers, but also about how objects were shelved and described. Her agenda, then, was infrastructural. She wanted to build access to Black print culture everywhere.

I see Porter as a precursor to contemporary archivists, curators, museum workers, and librarians who are continuing to ask important questions about the ethics, ownership, and custodianship of Black materials today—whether that work takes shape as “Call to Action: Archiving State-Sanctioned Violence Against Black People,”the manifesto launched by Zakiya Collier; the anti-racist descriptive standards developed by the Archives for Black Lives collective; the effort spearheaded by Dorothy Berry at the Houghton Library to focus its digitization program on African American history; or the Black Bibliography Project, which is piloting new metadata schema for Black print. These are just a few examples: the work to make Black life present in library and archival collections—which means both creating spaces for Black researchers and taking care with Black materials—remains critical today.

Greene: In chronicling the work of library curator Dorothy Porter Wesley, you move beyond the usual figures of African American intellectual history to talk about a librarian and archivist. What does Wesley’s career say about how we should evaluate the idea of the “intellectual” as we continue to study African American intellectual history?

Helton: Porter has been enjoying renewed attention from historians and literary scholars of late (see Zita Nunes’ “Cataloging Black Knowledge,” Kara Bledsoe’s “What Dorothy Porter’s Life Meant for Black Studies,” the Bibliographical Society of America’s “Honoring Dorothy Porter” initiative, and my article “Making Lists, Keeping Time”). But she was never really a “hidden figure.” She authored scores of articles and bibliographies, and as Benjamin Quarles once stated, she was present in the acknowledgments section of nearly every major book in African American Studies written in the twentieth century. Many scholars still active in the field have stories to tell about their encounters with Porter—from her love of fashion to the way she’d interrogate them before answering any reference questions.

So Porter has always been a known personality in African American Studies. But in talking about her contributions to the field, how can we move beyond Langston Hughes’ characterization of librarians as “those very nice women who help you find wonderful books”? Discussions of library work are very often gendered—in Porter’s lifetime and in our own. One of her colleagues at Howard once quipped that a librarian “merely knows how to arrange books on the shelves and keep them well dusted.” That idea, that the work of librarianship is “merely” about the feminized labor of upkeep, has underwritten a tendency to overlook it as central to intellectual history.

My goal is not simply to bring more visibility to figures like Porter, although that is an important endeavor in its own right. What I hope to do is underscore how forms of intellectual labor such as bibliography, cataloging, and archiving have long been central to Black thought as ways to reimagine the kinds of questions the field can ask. There is a tradition—from W.E.B. Du Bois as a bibliographer to Audre Lorde as a librarian—of Black writers working across multiple terrains of knowledge production. Black thinkers have necessarily made their arguments through files and filing structures as well as through prose and poetry. Understanding that tradition means bringing together African American intellectual history, library science, and the study of literature and reading.

Greene:  What are you currently working on?

Helton: In spite of many COVID-related disruptions, I’m finishing a book manuscript, tentatively entitled Collecting and Collectivity: Black Archival Publics, 1910-1950. It conjoins African American Studies and the growing interdisciplinary interest in archives not simply as sources, but also as subjects. It chronicles six collectors—from the Afro-Puerto Rican bibliophile Arturo Schomburg to Porter herself—who assembled African American archives and libraries at a moment when the very idea of Black historicity aroused doubt. In salvaging records, opening their parlors to readers, and casting preservation as a political act, these collectors did more than bequeath to future scholars a storehouse of research materials. They reshaped the racial imagination and put historical recuperation at the center of Black social movements.

Last year I was a Scholar-in-Residence at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and in addition to conducting research for my book, I also had the privilege of working with librarians and curators on the “Home to Harlem” project to reconstruct a catalog of Arturo Schomburg’s original library. Although Schomburg is arguably the African diaspora’s most famous bibliophile, the question of what exactly he collected has been shrouded in mystery. There was no extant inventory of his collection from the time of its sale to the New York Public Library in 1926, so scholars have long puzzled over this key part of Schomburg’s story. Over the years, staff at the Schomburg Center had pieced together clues about some books Schomburg had owned, but it was not until 2016 that a systematic search began. Around the same time, while I was conducting research in the Fisk University Special Collection and Archives, I came across a rare listing of about nine hundred items in Schomburg’s private library, circa 1914, when he lived on West 140th Street. I shared the list with Schomburg Center staff and we began to collaborate on “finding” Schomburg’s original library within the Center’s current holdings. As a Scholar-in-Residence, I co-wrote, with Matthew Murphy, Miranda Mims, and Alice Adamczyk, an essay about this effort. That article will be part of a forthcoming special issue of African American Review on Schomburg that Rafia Zafar and I are co-editing—which grew out of a session at the 2017 AAIHS conference.

  1.  While she went by the name Porter Wesley after her marriage to the historian Charles Wesley, I’m referring to her here by the name she used in most of her professional writing.
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Robert Greene II

Robert Greene II is an assistant professor of history at Claflin University and lead associate editor of Black Perspectives. He studies American history after 1945 with a focus on the American South, political history, and memory. Follow him on Twitter @robgreeneII.

Comments on “African American Print Culture: An Interview with Laura Helton

  • Is there an anthology reference book of anthologies, already in print, CD, or online, that is for sale, or must be subscribed to, that catalogues each anthology by a broad topic such as History of Science, Southern Fiction, Sculptors, or Explorers? This question assumes that a Reference Librarian is not easily accessible to discuss access to anthologies of anthologies?
    Thank you. J R O’F

    Reply

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