USF Libraries celebrate historically marginalized groups in virtual special collections

The African American Experience and the Womanhood in the Long 19th Century collections served as the USF Libraries’ initial foray into a continuing effort to represent the experiences of diverse populations. ORACLE PHOTO BY LEDA ALVIM

In an effort to promote social justice, the USF Tampa Library Special Collections department will continue to update one of its recently created archival collections as well as create newly digitized resources to conserve the history and experiences of marginalized groups across the state.

The African American Experience in Florida (AAE), formulated after the death of George Floyd and published in February, aims to preserve a digitized collection of stories by continuously uploading documents and papers of Black communities, businesses and activism in Florida. The Special Collections departments of the Tampa and St. Pete campuses plan to hold future events to attract potential contributors and guide them through the collection.

Contributors will one-day be able to donate photos, resources and funds of their own so the collection is continuously updated to reflect the history and experiences of the community. Collections can be accessed through the USF Libraries website.

Student interns and employees contributed to the development of the collections by identifying resources via the libraries’ digital collection sites to look for resources to feature and provided writing support, as well as digitizing documents that have not previously been digitized within the library archives. Before the spring semester ends, student assistants Angelica Johnson and Lydia Symens will take the lead on curating a rare books exhibit at Special Collections.

The library has also been gathering historical records and information for over a month in an effort to honor other marginalized groups.

The Womanhood in the Long 19th Century portal was also launched in March after being created by Special Collections’ student intern Natalia Fernandez. Communications and Marketing Officer for the USF Tampa Library, Maggie Trela, worked with Amanda Boczar, operations manager of Special Collections, to feature Natalia’s exhibit during Women’s History Month, highlighting the advancements in women’s lifestyles and literature in the Romantic and Victorian eras.

“Whenever there’s any kind of commemorative holiday, in my mind, it’s an easy way for us to highlight really great collections we don’t often get to bring into the spotlight,” said Trela. “So, with Women’s History Month being in March, it seemed like an obvious choice.”

The USF Tampa Library and Nelson Poynter Memorial Library of USF St. Pete collaborated to create the AAE after receiving direction from Dean of USF Libraries Todd Chavez requesting the libraries create a meta-collection of African American resources that would be accessible online. These resources could then be utilized to help combat systemic racism.

In order to preserve local African American history, Assistant Librarian and Head of Special Collections at the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library David Shedden uploads issues of The Weekly Challenger, an African American-owned newspaper primarily focused in St. Petersburg, as an effort to preserve stories of Black individuals in the area.

“It is said that journalism is the first rough draft of history,” said Shedden. “We feel that The Weekly Challenger is an example of not only preserving more traditional history but also recent news which will ultimately become history in the future.”

Shedden’s partnership with The Weekly Challenger has provided the AAE with archives of the newspaper dating back to 1973, providing students who view the portal with insights into the history of the Black community in St. Petersburg as well as their perspective on historical and recent events.

“The paper was founded in 1967 and talks about issues which go back 150 years,” said Shedden. “But at the same time, we have links to stories about the Black Lives Matter protests last year and various affairs going on in St. Petersburg today.”

After selecting numerous collections within the library to be featured, Head of Special Collections at USF Tampa Library Tomaro Taylor and Shedden created an advisory group consisting of faculty from the library, Women’s and Gender Studies, and English departments as well as from the Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President to help organize them into the categories featured on the AAE’s website.

“A lot of these collections have been underutilized,” said Taylor. “Bringing them to the fore through this method helps people identify these resources, learn more about them and potentially use them in their own research and projects.”

With faculty members being part of the AAE advisory board, Trela said they can integrate some of the resources into their own syllabi.

“With the focus being on getting students to actually interact with the portal, sharing resources with faculty can help them incorporate the material into the classroom setting,” said Trela. “Students can then do projects and research on the materials in the portal.”

However, with the pandemic still ongoing, Trela said it can be difficult for students to be able to go into the library and view these collections, or even hear about it in the first place. She has been in contact with news agencies and other university affiliates to get the word out about the collections.

“We were able to work with [University Communications and Marketing] to get out a directed press release about the collections and had a feature with ABC Action News,” said Trela. “We also worked with USF social media, and The Weekly Challenger did an article about us which will eventually become part of their own archive.”

The collections have been able to exist independently of funding, as the Womanhood in the Long 19th Century portal was created by a student intern and the AAE was created by selecting already existing works within the library collections.

“Our website is thankfully running off of USF Library servers, and was developed in-house by our webmaster Trevor Collinson,” said Taylor. “We’ll be investigating how we could potentially use funds to further develop the site, but right now, for better or worse, we’re working with what we have.”

For Johnson, the key aspect of the special collection was to provide access and spread awareness across the community.

“My job was essentially to go through certain collections that we already knew featured the African American experience heavily,” said Johnson. “Since a lot of these materials weren’t digitized and widely available to students at USF, we wanted to make sure we featured those prominently to spread awareness.”

While the Womanhood in the Long 19th Century portal won’t be updated further, Shedden and Taylor both plan to continue updating the AAE to create a database within the public domain for people within and outside campus borders to learn about African American history in Florida.

“This portal is a collection of stories that can help shape the conversation about the African American experience in Florida,” said Shedden. “We hope that through these stories, there can be a better understanding of African American history.”