Digital project supports ‘bibliographic turn’ in Black literary studies

Yale’s Jacqueline Goldsby and Meredith McGill of Rutgers University recently received a $1.7 million grant from The Mellon Foundation to support the development of The Black Bibliography Project (BBP), an initiative that aims to revive and transform descriptive bibliography for African American and Black Diaspora literary studies.

Using “Linked Data” — a web-based technique for recording meaningful relationships between and among data drawn from disparate sources — and in conjunction with Wikibase, Goldsby and McGill are building an electronic database that will offer new pathways for understanding the history of Black-published books, magazines, and newspapers, and will help reveal the social formations and aesthetic practices that are specific to Black print culture, in the U.S. and across the Black Diaspora.

Meredith McGill and Jacqueline Goldsby
Meredith McGill, left, and Jacqueline Goldsby (Photo by Dan Renzetti)

Designed by a collaborative team of metadata librarians, graduates, and scholars from Yale and Rutgers, the database will also connect Black authors with the organizations and people who published their writing, the places where these books were created and sold, and the people who owned or otherwise interacted with these objects as they moved through time and space.

The Mellon Foundation’s support for the BBP is bending the curve in what we have called ‘the bibliographic turn’ in African American literary studies,” said Goldsby, the Thomas E. Donnelley Professor of African American Studies and of English and professor of American studies at Yale. “This grant is a game-changing opportunity for the fields of bibliographic criticism and Black print culture studies.”

The BBP will establish partnerships with library and archival repositories across the nation, whose holdings in African American books, pamphlets, periodicals, and newspapers will populate the database.

During the pilot phase of the project, which also was funded by The Mellon Foundation, the team engaged in key preparatory work with the support of Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library and Rutgers’ Dean of Arts and Sciences.

The pilot phase of this project taught us how much there was to learn about the history of Black publishing, and how many clues about this history can be found in the books themselves,” said McGill, an associate professor in Rutgers’ Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

The new Mellon grant will allow Goldsby and McGill to take the BBP to scale.

This new grant, which will support the BBP’s activities for 3 1/2 years, will draw students and faculty from Yale and Rutgers together with experts in rare books and metadata librarianship and with specialists in information design to build cutting-edge knowledge infrastructure for African American studies,” McGill said.

For the implementation stage, Goldsby and McGill will direct a large team composed of newly hired staff librarians and graduate student fellows at both Yale and Rutgers, fostering cross-institutional collaborations on multiple levels.

Goldsby is also excited about the valuable capacity-building the project will provide at the two universities and beyond, including:

  • hiring new staff at Yale’s and Rutgers’ libraries;
  • training graduate students in Black book history and bibliographic criticism;
  • recruiting undergraduate data science students into the project; and
  • building bridges between Black Studies librarians and curators at university and public repositories across the country.

The interdisciplinary explorations ahead will be thrilling,” said Goldsby.

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