Researching, Archiving and Preserving a Disowned African-American Collection


When I started researching the collections origin, I was a bit nervous, mainly due to the undocumented and abandoned property of such a significant find.  The Society of American Archivist has made information accessible on their website in an “effort to identify states that have laws” in place to obtain neglected collections.  The “Abandoned Property Project” in Cultural Institutions Law Project is an effort to identify states that have laws which allow cultural institutions such as museums and archives to obtain ownership of abandoned or orphan collections.” 

This online resource is a continuous guide that keeps information updated for archivist.

Through the Illinois Compiled Statutes database, under the “Museum Property Act,” (765 ILCS 1033/10) Sec. 10. The definitions does not only apply to “Museum” but an institution or entity located in Illinois that is operated by a non-profit corporation,  trust, association, public agency, or educational institution; is operated primarily for educational, scientific, historic preservation, cultural or aesthetic purposes; and owns, borrows, cares for exhibits, studies, archives, or catalogs property.”  (Illinois General Assembly)

wooden gavel and books on wooden table,on brown background

When it comes to the Williamson collection and the right to possess it, Mark Greene summarized it well. (Society of American Archivist) The law stipulates that the property has to have been held by the repository for at least seven years. (765 ILCS 1033/35) Sec 35. Thus Acquiring Title to Undocumented Property.  The repository is required to send notice by certified mail to the last known address if undocumented. In this scenario, I have personally maintained the collection in my private possession for more than seven years. Furthermore, the last known address in which this collection was found, was uninhabited and the items were found in a large black trash bag, ready for disposal.

Considering the cultural heritage of this rare collection, donating it to the Vivian G. Harsh Research Repository was appropriate and an honor. Vivian-Harsh “Harsh is the largest African American history and literature collection in the Midwest, the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature documents the black experience with a strong focus on Chicago.” The EHW collection is historically important and plays a dynamic part in the Chicago cultural experience.




The photos in the collection are heirlooms and are considered lost treasures. The collection holds rare, expensive and one of a kind photos, letters, deteriorating newspapers, programs and ephemeral that need preserving and archiving. The collection is comprised of various group pictures, personal portraits of Williamson and intimate family photographs. The photos are rare and fragile, as I combed through the collection, I made it a point to wear white gloves. The reason for gloves were to protect the photos from the oils and salt that are contained on my hands.  2016-05-04 23.16.29The Associate library preservationist, Randy Silverman from Utah Marriott Library taught a Preservation & Conservation course in the fall of 2014 at Dominican University. Silverman emphasized keeping our hands clean when handling material. This is critical to the preservation of any rare photos because over time, the elements from our hands can damage the photographs, and wearing cotton gloves can protect these photographs.