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Black History At Risk?

November 11, 2009

One of the most important troves of African-American historical materials became the subject of national ire and hand wringing this week, when the student newspaper at Howard University reported that the university library’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center -- considered one of the foremost repositories of artifacts and manuscripts related to black history -- could close due to an inadequate budget and a shortage of staff.

The article prompted a stream of upset phone calls, e-mails, blog posts -- including an item in The Root, a Web magazine founded by Henry Louis Gates Jr., decrying the news. It also prompted an e-mail to the paper from Alvin Thornton, Howard’s associate provost for academic affairs, emphasizing that the university has no plans to close the research center.

Thomas C. Battle, the retiring director of Moorland-Spingarn, whose comments had touched off the speculation over the research center’s, told Inside Higher Ed that his comments had indeed been misinterpreted, and that he did not believe the center would close.

Still, Battle said, the center is in trouble. He said it has been understaffed since the early 1990s, when budget cuts and restructuring caused the center to reduce its staff by more than half. Since then, the staff has continued to shrink incrementally, culminating with several key staffers accepting buyouts this year.

Moorland-Spingarn’s 80 percent personnel reduction over the past 15 years is not attributable merely to the evolution of new technologies, Battle said. “Ours is not the kind of repository that can simply rely on the digitization of materials,” he said. Meanwhile, the center’s collections -- which include photographs, letters, music recordings, and other artifacts -- have grown. Its 10 remaining staff members need additional space to properly store the materials, process collections, and handle artifacts, Battle said. “We are in an old facility and need to be in a modern facility,” he said.

Ralph Luker, an Atlanta-based civil rights historian who has done research at Moorlan-Spingarn, said that when the research center is shortchanged, so is scholarship. The Howard administration’s statement that the center will not be closed is little comfort in light of the problems facing it.

“All that pronouncement says is they have no current plans to lock up the building and throw away the key,” Luker said. “Those of us who have done research in Moorland-Spingarn in recent years know that they have an enormous backlog of unprocessed manuscript collections that have not been cataloged.”

“What we need is not an assurance that it will not be closed,” he continued. “We need assurance that they intend to staff it in such a way that they can fulfill their obligations both to scholars and those who’ve deposited their papers there -- to process those collections and make them available to researchers.”

Thornton, the associate provost, said he thinks charges of negligence levied against the university are unfair, pointing to the fact that while most departments saw budget cuts of up to 20 percent, the research center’s budget was not touched. “In this environment,” he said, “any budget that stays the same is a priority for the university.”

Thornton did agree that the Moorland-Spigarn’s budget -- about $600,000 -- is not what it would ideally be. But he said the university is in the process of reviewing proposals for improving the facilities at the research center, and in the meantime is committed to providing it with the resources to remain operational. Beyond that, he said, the center's next director will be responsible for raising funds for non-essential investments.

This week's outcry over false reports of the center's impending closure, he added, suggests fertile ground for such fund raising efforts.

 

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