Award for Access

Dr. Elisabeth McMahon—Assistant Professor of History, Tulane University
Nominated by Dr. Randy Sparks, Professor and Chair of the History Department, Tulane University.

In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Tulane University in New Orleans instituted a “service learning” component into its curriculum as a graduation requirement. So for her spring 2009 Archiving Africa class, Dr. McMahon engaged her students in a community outreach partnership with the Amistad Research Center, an independent, nonprofit special collections library on the Tulane campus. The Archiving Africa class aimed to introduce upper-level seminar students to primary source documents on African history. By working with an Africa-related special collections library, the students received significant hands-on, primary-source experience while fulfilling the service-learning requirement.

McMahon and Amistad librarians selected an inactive set of American Committee on Africa (ACOA) files as the focus of the collaboration and carefully planned the project and its objectives to ensure meaningful and timely outcomes for both partners. The ACOA has provided support for anti-colonial and anti-apartheid movements in Africa since 1953, making the donated collection an especially good fit for the students and for eager researchers awaiting improved access to the materials. Amistad received the ACOA collection in 1983; in 1988 staff produced an initial 54- page collection finding aid that contained a description of the contents and box and folder inventories. Although large, the finding aid lacked enough detail to encourage research, despite scholarly demand for the materials.

The students received training in archival theory and methodology prior to the hands-on work, and they focused their assistance on the African country or region that best connected with their research topic. Under the supervision of Amistad staff, students indexed a broad range of ACOA correspondence from political leaders, advocates and opponents, and others involved in the freedom movement, and inventoried boxes of ACOA files and ephemera dating from 1952 to 1976. Through the project, the students accessed primary source materials linked to real historical events and received intensive, focused experience that could be chronicled in a research paper.

The expanded and enhanced records developed through this partnership will enable Amistad staff and researchers around the world to access an important but underused primary source collection that had remained dormant for more than 25 years. The bibliographic information developed through this project currently is being loaded into Amistad’s new finding aid database and will be available to researchers in May 2010.

Note: For information about three important CRL archives of apartheid-era documentation— the Benjamin Pogrund, Carter-Karis, and Karis-Gerhart Collections of South African political materials—see the summer 2004 issue of the FOCUS on Global Resources newsletter.