Preserving Counter-Narratives and The Racial Imaginary Institute

By EmmaKarin

The Racial Imaginary Institute speaking at the Schomburg Center

The Racial Imaginary Institute speaking at the Schomburg Center

The lights dim in the Langston Hughes Auditorium within the Schomburg Center located on Malcolm X Boulevard. A short video entitled, “What is the Schomburg Center?” begins to roll and the voice of Shola Lynch, curator of the center’s Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division, booms, “it is the place where we come to see who we are. Not just some body’s reflection of who we are.” This is the true theme of center as well as of the evening. We are here to celebrate the launch of The Racial Imaginary Institute (TRII) website, a new type of art archive founded by poet and MacArthur fellow Claudia Rankine. Rankine and Dr. LeRonn P. Brooks are moderating a discussion between two artists featured in the archive, Alexandra Bell and Hank Willis Thomas. The website is one of the first steps for the institute, which will collaborate with organizations, collectives and spaces to confront the concept of race through, the activation of interdisciplinary work and a democratized exploration” (The Racial Imaginary Institute).

The first web issue focuses on “constructions, deconstructions, and visualizations of/around whiteness, white identity, white rage/fragility/violence, and white dominant structures” (The Racial Imaginary Institute). Whiteness as the first theme was ­­­­­deliberate, investigating white dominance and “America’s commitment to whiteness” says Rankine, is the first step in dismantling racism and the concept of race. The website will collect submissions throughout the year and is capable of hosting all types of media. This will allow for a variety of voices to be heard across artistic disciplines to show different manifestations of lived experience within the dominant structures of whiteness.

'Tulsa Man' by Alexandra Bell

‘Tulsa Man’ by Alexandra Bell

“I don’t think I will ever live in a post-racial society,” says Alexandra Bell. A graduate of Columbia’s Journalism school Bell professes that it mostly, “made [her] a very snobby reader.” She critiques the latent racism within journalism through creating counter-narratives by editing articles from The New York Times, enlarging them tenfold and wheat pasting them in public spaces throughout New York City, predominantly Brooklyn. Her most well-known work is “A Teenager with Promise” a commentary of the inept coverage by the paper over Michael Brown’s murder. Her pieces are diptychs with one panel featuring a redacted and edited copy of the original article noting the language choices that sustain the dominant white narrative; the second panel is her visual representation of the more accurate counter-narrative.

'Absolut Power' by Hank Willis Thomas

‘Absolut Power’ by Hank Willis Thomas

“Race is the most successful advertising campaign of all time,” Hank Willis Thomas tells the audience. Thomas is a conceptual artist whose body of work intersects on ideas of identity, commodity, and pop culture. He believes that “black identity” is fabricated, co-opted and capitalized upon by whiteness. Most known for his series B®anded consisting of manipulated photographs to explore themes of the black body as a commodity from the time of slavery to the present day. One of his most striking pieces is Absolut Power, a play on the Absolut vodka ad campaigns, filling the iconic bottle’s silhouette with the diagram of the Brooke’s slave ship.

“Through archives, the past is controlled[,]” Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook remind us, “[c]ertain stories are privileged and others marginalized” (1). The institution of the archive “represents enormous power over memory and identity, over the fundamental ways in which society seeks evidence of what its core values are and have been, where it has come from, and where it is going” (Schwartz and Cook 1). These are the exact issues the institute sets out to tackle. Racism is a social construct, it is built upon privilege and power that is either overt or subconcious. When a police officer shoots a black man his defense most often that he was afraid. But afraid of what? White dominance has controlled the narrative surrounding black bodies since we kidnapped them from their homes and enslaved them here on our soil. We have allowed this narrative to continue unchecked actively and passively in all corners of society. In archives specifically, it can be seen in the collection process. It is not uncommon to search records under the “Black History” heading only to find files filled with solely caricature advertising, gruesome accounts of lynching, or similar narratives that place people of color as the victimized other. These narrow collections focus on “Black History” from a controlled white perspective.

As a writer and scholar of African history and diaspora, Arturo Schomburg, for whom the center is dedicated, came up against many who were quick to say that people of color had no history. He went on to amass the largest collection of artifacts and records of black history to preserve the history and culture which society deemed illegitimate. He strove to preserve the range of black experiences, from excellence to exploitation, rather than focusing on the suffering and stereotypes. That to him was not African history it was the history of white dominance and oppression. Because of his legacy ­­­­we have the records that are the literal actual narrative of black experience and not just what white archivist and society have deemed the acceptable history.

The Racial Imaginary Institute seeks to expound upon the ideas of Shomburg by collecting and creating a “deep memory archive” (Brooks) of artistic manifestations of lived experience. It will serve to capture not just our history past, but also our history current. This is a pointed effort to start the conversation now rather than wait for our future historians to interpret the evidence. This is a new way of collecting and disseminating information through active community participation that will circumvent the power still held in the institution of the archive.

The Racial Imaginary Institute

The Racial Imaginary Institute

Works Referenced:“About the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.”, New York Public Library ,

Charlton, Lauretta. “Claudia Rankine’s Home for the Racial Imaginary.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 19 June 2017,

Félix, Doreen St. “The.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 31 July 2017,

“HANK WILLIS THOMAS, BRANDED.” Jack Shainman Gallery, Jack Shainman Gallery, Artist page.

Rankine, Claudia, Dr. LeRonn P. Brooks, Alexandra Bell, and Hank Willis Thomas. “Artist and the Archive: Deconstructing Racial Imagination at the Schomburg” New York Public Library Schomburg Center. 515 Malcolm X Boulevard, New York. 26 Sept. 2017. Artist Panel Discussion.

Schwartz, Joan M, and Terry Cook. “Archives, Records and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science : International Journal on Recorded Information. (2002). Print.

“The Racial Imaginary Institute.” The Racial Imaginary Institute, The Racial Imaginary Institute,


“Archives, Advocacy, and Change” at the New York Academy of Medicine

By Carissa

“The archival profession is inherently an activist profession.” -Rich Wandel

Last night, the New York Academy of Medicine hosted a panel called “Archives, Advocacy, and Change” as part of their Changemakers series. The panelists were Jenna Freedman, founder of the Barnard Zine Library; Steven Fullwood, founder of In the Life Archive; Timothy Johnson, director of NYU’s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives and co-director of Tamiment’s Cold War Center; and Rich Wandel (quoted above), founder of  The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center National History Archive.  Continue reading

Institutional Memory

By belantara

In their article, “Archives, Records and Power: The Making of Modern Memory” Schwartz and Cook discuss the important impact archives have on social memory and the often overlooked power held by information professionals. They write:

“archives…wield power over the administrative, legal and fiscal accountability of governments, corporations and individuals…[they] wield power over the shape and direction of historical scholarship, collective memory and national identity, over how we know ourselves as individuals, groups and societies.”

Does the fact that an object is in an archive make it more a more valuable object or reliable as a source?  Who decides?  What are the possible futures of the past and how can the past be found? Whose memory gets stored and whose gets lost? Author Alberto Manguel calls libraries “preservers of memory of our society” and as such as libraries and archives play an essential role in deciding the fate of the past and as such have a power that is rarely associated with them by the general public.

To preserve knowledge and history seems to be a human need. Is it related to our biological instinct for survival?  Perhaps we feel that even though our lives are ephemeral, memory of our lives should be everlasting?  NASA’s golden record was launched into space in 1977 with the hope of reaching other living beings or perhaps human descendants. The record contains sounds of nature along with languages and music from around the world.   Undoubtedly however, one record can not capture every aspect of human diversity, indeed, not even a large archive can contain a history or memory of everything.  Who then, will tell the stories that are not told by archives, and who will listen?

As Rodney G.S. Carter points out in the article, “Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences and Power in Silence:”

“A universal archive, one that preserves the memory of a culture is an impossibility as memory is necessarily an individual thing: there are many memories that often are conflicting and contradictory. Even if archivists are willing to allow multiple voices into the archives, it will never be complete. There is simply no way of capturing the multitude of stories, although archivists must try. ”

Even if archivists and librarians aim to create an all-inclusive archive, decisions about what to collect and what not to collect must be made. Not everything can be kept.  As Schwarz and Cook point out, these decisions heavily impact memory of the past and materials given precious archival space are often used to validate ideas of how things happened or are assigned a higher value than items that are not part of an official archival collection. Yet, as Schwarz and Cook write, “what goes on in the archives remains remarkably unknown.” Schwarz and Cook mainly address the content of libraries and archives, but their mission to raise discussion about the power held by archivists is reminiscent of radical catalogers’ calls to draw attention to and change biases in cataloging practices.  The organization and classifying methods used in public collections adds yet another layer to the complex power relations embedded in archives and libraries.   How do archivists and librarians make decisions and how can these decisions be made more visible to the people who use them?

Perhaps one solution may be to raise public dialogue on these issues and to begin to raise awareness about the curatorial aspects of library and archival work.   It seems that weeding is one of aspect of collection management that draws wide public attention. News articles describe the public’s dismay at seeing large quantities of books and other materials being removed from a library’s collection. Articles from library professionals list up ways libraries can help diffuse upset over weeding and how to talk about the deaccessioning process in a way that is more acceptable to the public. Perhaps these are times when the public’s attention could also be drawn to the complex task librarians and archivists face when trying to create diverse and useful collections. Libraries and archives could create a public forum to openly discuss these issues and gather input from community members about the stories they want their libraries and archives to tell.

Another strategy that could be useful would be to offer small public tours of behind the scenes archival and library spaces. Such tours could help shed some light on important issues regarding collection development and cataloging practices. People can see what goes into making all the resources available to them. People often have a greater appreciation for work once they have a better idea of what goes into it. People attending the tour can respond to some of the practices they see.  This type of activity can help libraries and archives make their activities more transparent and open to public input.

Another way to increase public involvement in and awareness of important library/archival issues is through art.  Art has the capacity to reach wide audiences and inspire them to see and hear things they encounter everyday in a new way. A number of interesting artworks that explore human interaction with library and archival systems have been on exhibition around New York in recent years, and some of them have been successful in generating much needed public dialogue about some of the issues Schwarz and Cook raise.  Interactive artworks, such as an audiovisual artwork called Kinokologue invite audiences to participate in cataloging tasks encourage them to engage with collections in a new and playful way.

One other interesting option may be to use beacon technology to help tell alternative narratives about the collections. Beacons are small transmitters that can be placed almost anywhere to send out information to smart devices within a certain range.   Perhaps users could learn about the b-side of library collections, such as the story of where a particular item came from or why it was chosen to be part of a collection. Or maybe the beacons could be used to indicate what’s missing from a collection and invite input on this from patrons.

While each of these solutions may not be possible in every context, they do offer ways of increasing public awareness about the important yet often invisible power issues Schwarz and Cook raise. When people have the opportunity to gain insight into how collections are produced and maintained and the decisions librarians and archivists are faced with, they may begin to see these places as less neutral objective spaces and recognize them for the socio-cultural-historic constructed places that they are. While libraries, archives and museums are sometimes known as memory institutions, perhaps such activities may help people realize that these institutional memories, just like each of ours are inherently biased, faulty and incomplete.  Every object and every memory changes with time and context.  What does not change is the human desire to preserve memories as best as possible with the hope that future generations can learn from and find something of themselves within them.

Works Cited:

Schwartz, J. & Cook, T. (2002). “Archives, records, and power: the making of modern memory,” Archival Science 2: 1–19.

CARTER, Rodney G.S.. Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in Silence. Archivaria, [S.l.], sep. 2006.

The Great and Powerful…

By MooreAbstract

Do you remember the Wizard of Oz? I hope so, or else this will not make sense to the ones who do not. Dorothy and her friends went on a journey to see the great and powerful Oz to ask a certain request. This process can be translatable to those who go to the archives for answers. The archives, in a way, can be seen as the great and powerful Oz. The people of the town go to Oz for answers; he is all knowing. However, Oz magnificence was an illusion, he was merely a man.


Oz, and the archive have very similar purpose and position in society. The archive is a place and idea that holds power in the ways we preserve and shape knowledge and memory. But with this power comes great responsibility (thank you spider-man), in other words, where there is power of selection there is the power to exclude and silence.


The archive is a truly powerful and political domain. The archive has the ability to not only persevere, and organize information; this domain essentially shapes our knowledge and memory of the past. Yet, the power of selection can also be countered with omission. “Archives are ‘how we know ourselves as individuals, groups, and societies,’” (Carter, 2006) it helps shape one’s identity. However, amongst all the resources that is collected, how does the archivist determine what shall be preserved or forgotten? This question is closely knitted into the issue of archival alienation and silence. Archivist Rodney G.S. Carter notes, “the power to exclude is a fundamental aspect of the archive. Inevitable, there are distortions, omissions, erasures, and silence in the archive,” (2006) not everyone’s voices are heard, especially the marginalized. If the records of these groups are manipulated and destroyed, or excluded, [their narratives] cannot be transmitted across time, the records about this group may ultimately disappear from history (2006).


There are three types of powers that are possessed by the archive: control over collective memory, control of preservation, and specifically to the archivist, the interpretation and meditation between records and users. This amount of power is astounding, and scary. These powers shape what and how we learn. It was interesting that archivist Randall Jimerson, suggested archivist to embrace this power. However, there was a catch. We should embrace the powers, in order to use them for greatness. I believe this can be applied to reference librarians as well. Librarians hold somewhat power in the community, because we provide access to service and information that our residents interests or needs. By embracing this power, we can keep ourselves in check in terms of what to record and materials to exclude, how to intercept and provide access to the user.


However, the power to exclude materials can, and often leads to archival silence. Archival silence is gaps of information that are not present in a collection. These gaps are often records that connect or represent marginalized groups. Archival silence are gaps in preserved texts such as written, visual, audio-visual, and electronic which are “currency of archives” (2006) These text are often not representable of society. Oftentimes, the history accounted for are from the viewpoint of those in power or privileged, this act can leave a void in the collective memory because it excludes the viewpoints of the minorities or underprivileged. This silence can lead to a lack of identity. Most importantly, these gaps can lead to a history being forgotten or distorted.


The duty to be mindful of the gaps within the archive should be accepted by librarians and archivists. There are several tactics that were suggested by numerous archivists that will be helpful in the profession. The first is using a feminist critique to listen to the silences. This is done by listening to the omissions and interrogating the powerful (Carter, 2006). Secondly, archivist Randall Jimerson suggests embracing the power of the archive. By doing so, we can use the power for good, to use our power of knowledge preservations and memory formation to protect the public interest (2005). In addition, it is best, I believe, for anyone in the research profession, to eliminate as much bias in our process mainly neutrality. The act to not take a stance is a loose form of indifference. In addition, by acknowledging bias we avoid using power indiscriminately, or accidentally (Carter, 2006). Lastly, acquiring a social responsibility will help foster awareness and activism to address this type of archival discourse. These tactics will not solve this issue but will hinder the possibility of future gaps.


For those who wish to pursue the life of an archivist, or a librarian for the matter, be aware of this issue. Be conscious of your selection of material and look for ways in which you can be inclusive. It is a part of our social responsibility in a democratic society to notice alienation in our collection whether it is the library or archives. This awareness can enable information professionals to vocalize those who are misrepresented; this inclusion can lead to proper representation, positive formation of memory and identity.




Carter, R. (2006). Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in       Silence. Archivaria, 61(61). Retrieved October 22, 2014,             from


Jimerson R. C. (2005). Embracing the Power of Archives. Society of American        Archivist. Retrieved October 20, 2014, from   


Jimerson, R. C. (2009). Archive Power: Memory, accountability, and social justice.            Chicago: The Society of American Archivist.

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