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Libraries win grant for national theater archives project

By February 5, 2014September 16th, 2023No Comments

$250,000 grant is from the Institute of Museum and Library Services

Black Pearl Sings

“Black Pearl Sings,” Penumbra Theatre Company, 2010 (Penumbra Theatre Company Archives, Givens Collection of African American Literature, University of Minnesota Libraries)

The University of Minnesota Libraries has received a $250,000 grant to make accessible a national collection of digital materials that document African American theater and cultural history. The grant is the second award from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and continues the Libraries’ work on a national theater archive project in partnership with St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre.

“The U of M Libraries is proud to lead this project in partnership with Penumbra Theatre, and to have the enthusiastic support of the theaters and the many cultural institutions that steward these priceless materials,” said Cecily Marcus, curator of the Givens Collection of African American Literature and Performing Arts Archives at the University of Minnesota Libraries, and the principal investigator for the grant. “It is our hope that, together, we can create a platform from which a much deeper investigation might occur and, in turn, generate more informed dialogue, representation and artistic expression.”

In 2012, during the project’s initial phase, the Libraries and Penumbra Theatre led a national forum on the value, impact and practices of archiving theater, with a focus on African American theater. This research revealed:

  • A need for support to create and maintain archives within theaters;
  • a desire to produce oral histories with leaders of African American theater; and
  • the need for an online search tool to access the vast historical material currently available in libraries and museums across the country.

Grant will fund development of online search tool

The second phase of this IMLS grant will support development of an online search tool over the next two years. The tool will search across existing collections — such as the University of Minnesota Libraries, Library of Congress, New York Public Library and the Smithsonian — in order to connect researchers, artists, teachers, and students to over 500 years of African American history, represented by photographs, scripts, manuscripts, maps, news stories, film and video.

“Unexpurgated preservation of the physical and ephemeral archives of these companies is critical to understanding African American cultural history and intellectual thought,” said Lou Bellamy, Penumbra Theatre’s founder and artistic director.

Currently, these materials can be hard to find, but the search tool, easily embedded on any website, makes them more accessible and able to provide deeper historical context for African American arts and cultural expression.

Doug Reside, digital curator from the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts said, “This project will allow library and archival data to be linked together to the larger web of information that gives it sense.”

University of Minnesota Libraries will work with theater professionals, libraries and museums to identify existing archival material relevant to African American theater and cultural history. The Libraries also will work to add content to the Digital Public Library of America (, contributing to its collection of African American cultural-historical materials.

More information

Mark Engebretson

Author Mark Engebretson

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