Out of the shadows: Bringing African American digital collections together in Umbra Search African American History

Cecily Marcus, Sarah Carlson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article explores in four sections the logic and impact of the ways in which all archival collections, but African American collections most poignantly, are incomplete; and how a national search engine for African American history confronts and attempts to address the absence of African American stories, voices, documents, and histories. Following the work of scholars such as Verne Harris, Michelle Caswell, and others, the first section analyzes how and why archives are always necessarily incomplete, as well as the particular reasons behind the bias and erasure of and within African American history and the archives that have come to collect and represent it. The second section discusses how Umbra Search African American History (umbrasearch.org) was conceived as a response to the need for a more complete archival record of African American history and culture. Section three presents Umbra Search as a case study-what it is, how it has grown, the role of partners, and the challenges it faces. The final section considers the roles of academic and community collections, technology, and collaboration in creating access to a deeper and more fulsome representation of American history and culture.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-41
Number of pages41
JournalOpen Library of Humanities
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Starting in 2015, we began that process, finding that there was not a single collecting unit that did not hold significant caches of materials documenting different aspects of African American history. Through keyword searches, conversations with our archivist and curator colleagues, and by pulling collections to look inside boxes and folders, we identified materials from 74 collections—magazines, manuscripts, pamphlets, ephemera, organizational files, correspondence, and illustrations, some of which date back to the sixteenth century, as well as video and sound recordings— that now make up the basis for a two-year mass digitization effort to make African American history materials from University of Minnesota collections accessible online, through a Hidden Collections digitization grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources. When the project is completed in 2018, we will have digitized materials from at least 162 collections rather than the 74 we initially identified, adding richer metadata to make the materials more discoverable, and adding nearly 500,000 scans to the University of Minnesota’s digital collections. Those materials will be aggregated by DPLA and they will become part of Umbra Search.

Funding Information:
2 Funding for Umbra Search comes from several grants, and from the University of Minnesota Libraries. Its planning and implementation phases were funded by the Institute of Museum and Library services: a total of $350,000 over about four years that was used to fund a survey about archives and performing arts organizations, with a focus on African American theaters; national forums with leaders of African American and other theaters on archives, legacy, and history; a half-time project manager that became a full-time position; about 12 months of a developer’s time; and graphic design, usability testing, and travel/meetings with partners. Funding for digitization of African American ‘hidden’ collections comes from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR): nearly $225,000 for a 24-month project, with a full-time project archivist and digitization/metadata lead; many thousands of hours of students’ time spent digitizing materials; a small amount of outsourced digitization for audio-visual materials; and some supplies. Community engagement and dissemination work is funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation: $168,000 over the course of 2.5 years that covers some Project Manager time, travel, outreach activities, support for the Umbra Search Advisory Council, some Umbra Search collateral (stickers, bookmarks, traveling exhibit panels), etc. These figures do not represent the significant cost-share, sometimes as high as 100%, provided by the University of Minnesota: the time of multiple staff, sometimes as much as 50% of a staff member’s appointment. and including directors, curators, catalogers, metadata librarians, designers, communication staff, event planning staff, and many more; frequent flier miles; discretionary funds from Libraries administrators; indirect costs (office space, phones, Internet, heat, air conditioning, etc.), and more, all of which are factored into the budget and tracked throughout the grant terms.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 The Author(s).


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