Librarian Shauna Collier on the Development of African American Cultural Scholarship

Portrait of Shauna Collier, 2018.

Portrait of Shauna Collier, 2018.

What changes have you seen during your time at the Smithsonian?
I started in 2002 as the librarian for [one of the twenty or so Smithsonian facilities] the Anacostia Museum—now the Anacostia Community Museum—and around that time it merged with the Center for African American History and Culture. They had to be combined when legislation for the NMAAHC didn’t pass in Congress. Then, I left
and came back to Smithsonian for my current position.

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When I first joined, the institution was going through a unifying process. Each museum is considered its own unit and, at the time, there wasn’t much standardization across the branches. In 2005, the building of the new African American museum was signed into law and the American Indian Museum opened.

How do you select books for the collection?
We first prioritize the needs of our own museum’s staff, then those of the larger Smithsonian staff, and finally, those of the independent research community. Additionally, if there’s enough scholarship, we collect publications on current events. For example, social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement are really popular right now. We librarians think of ourselves as forecasters, because we have to predict what might be a popular topic in the future.

Is there a subject area that might trend among researchers in the coming years?
I remember being surprised in 2014 that there wasn’t a lot of scholarship on LGBTQ subjects in our African American history and culture holdings. Every time I saw something, I snatched it up, because I had a feeling that it was going to be an important topic.

Another area that’s currently underdeveloped among scholars is African American style. We have a fashion and style curator on staff, so I often search out titles for her. I don’t know if the subject is ever going to trend, but it’s always going to be there. A few years ago, a research fellow was looking at the clothing of those who were enslaved in the Americas. The garments they wore said a lot about the plantation they were on and how wealthy the planter was. A lot of factors, like the type of fabric, and the slaves’ own sense of style came into play. I thought that was fascinating! It reminds me of the quilts that some scholars say were designed with signs and hung out as part of the Underground Railroad system. I have collected a few Vogue magazines featuring Beyoncé and Michelle Obama as a point of reference for contemporary African American style as well.

I’m also hoping to see more scholarship on African American dandies, a term usually applied to a man—although, in recent history, there have been some women who are considered dandies—with a particular sense of style. In the early 1900s, these men had a certain walk and would wear shawls over a suit that resembled a tuxedo, with a nice top hat and a cane. In recent years, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article about black dandies on college campuses. There have been a few books on dandies and Dandyism too. But with all the social justice issues being debated right now in the African American community, this kind of scholarship is open to criticism. Still, there’s a lot of pride in Black style, and I hope there will be more research on it.

View of the National Museum of African American History and Culture under construction, 2015.

View of the National Museum of African American History and Culture under construction, 2015.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of your job?
I was so excited to be part of the opening of the museum in September 2016. There was a huge sense of accomplishment, because it took more work than I would ever have imagined. It was a fun day filled with activities and special guests like President Obama, the Bushes, and several celebrities.

On a more regular basis, I enjoy seeing what comes out of the research, knowing that I contributed to its production. I also love when people visit the exhibits and learn something new, or when they take pride in seeing African American history and culture illuminated. I have had several people say that the museum felt like home, and that it was a feeling they’ve never had in any other museum.


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