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Amid Protests and Pandemic, Harvard Libraries Collect Materials on ‘Black America and COVID-19’

Harvard University's Widener Library in Cambridge, Mass.
Harvard University's Widener Library in Cambridge, Mass. By Michael Gritzbach
By Jessica Lee, Christina T. Pham, and Oliver L. Riskin-Kutz, Crimson Staff Writers

The Harvard Libraries published a new library guide Monday that collects open-access materials documenting the effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic on Black Americans.

Created in partnership with the President’s Office for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging; the Harvard Graduate School of Education; and the Charles Hamilton Institute for Race and Justice; the guide has received more than 8,000 pageviews since its launch, according to Sarah J. DeMott, a College research librarian.

Director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Tracie D. Jones said she was motivated to create the guide after seeing the virus’s effect on Black Americans, including her own family. She then enlisted DeMott’s help to develop the project.

“When you document something in an archive or in a library, it becomes a permanent resource for researchers in the future,” DeMott said.

“We have this wonderful potential to preserve this record and make sure that we acknowledge the disparities and the disproportionate impact on Black communities, but also the resilience and the way that Black communities have responded during this time,” she added.

The guide currently collects materials such as articles, podcasts, and poetry under 19 different topic headings, which vary from “Labor & Economy” to “Media, Television, Theater, & Film.” Its website lists a number of “co-curators,” composed of affiliates from Harvard and other universities.

The site also links to additional workshops and events, such as a “Community Survey” workshop that teaches participants how to document people’s experiences by compiling surveys. More than 160 Harvard affiliates have already registered for the “Anti-Racism Book and Film Club.”

Amsale “Amy” Alemu ’14, a graduate student in the African and African American Studies department, said the guide is a “great first step” toward starting conversations about the Black experience of COVID-19.

“It's a conversation that's of immediate importance not only for researchers, but also just for the general public,” Alemu said.

DeMott wrote in an email that the novelty of the pandemic shaped the materials that the guide collects. Instead of gathering published scholarly articles, DeMott and her collaborators turned to different kinds of works, such as Zoom interviews, podcasts, radio broadcasts, poetry, and photography.

Among the materials collected is “Where My Brothers and Sisters Have Been,” an original song submitted by incoming Harvard freshman LyLena Estabine ’24. Jones referred to this song as an example of how the works collected in the guide, and the guide itself, can contribute to movements protesting racial injustice.

“You don't have to be Black to write about this experience, or to read about this experience,” Jones said. “I actually believe it helps you to understand the lived experience of people who are different from you, when you use this guide or actually contribute to the guide.”

Alemu said Harvard and its libraries have a particular responsibility to shape national conversations.

“Harvard, especially for the public, is a voice of authority here,” she said, citing the recent withdrawal following a joint Harvard-MIT lawsuit of a DHS and ICE policy that would have prohibited some international students from remaining in the U.S.

“Harvard has power in that context, and sets a lot of priorities for public discourse,” Alemu added.

—Staff writer Jessica Lee can be reached at jessica.lee@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Christina T. Pham can be reached at christina.pham@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @Christina_TPham.

—Staff writer Oliver L. Riskin-Kutz can be reached at oliver.riskin-kutz@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @OLRiskinKutz.

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RaceFASLibrariesUniversityUniversity NewsCoronavirusCoronavirus Feature