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Illuminating the Umbra of African American History online

By February 17, 2016September 16th, 2023No Comments
umbra home page

Homepage of Umbra: Search African American History (

By Sarah Carlson
Umbra Project Manager

The urgency of representing African American history and culture as fully as possible is the driver of Umbra: Search African American History, a free online search tool being developed by the Givens Collection of African American Literature at the University of Minnesota Libraries, with Penumbra Theatre Company.

Umbra, now available online in beta, brings together more than 400,000 digitally available items that document African American cultural history from over 500 archives, libraries, and cultural heritage institutions in the United States.

The hundreds of thousands of materials in Umbra represent what of African American cultural history has been collected and preserved by our libraries and archives; and of those materials, what has been digitized and made available online. In aggregating these fragments from the many repositories across the country, Umbra leverages partnerships, open data, and technology to make more widely accessible a national digital collection of African American history and culture.

Umbra search widget can be embedded on any website

But Umbra isn’t just a website. It’s also a search widget, a small piece of code that can be easily embedded in any online environment —course pages, partners’ websites, blogs — so that users don’t need to know the full address. Instead, they can just click on the Umbra icon and be transported to the corpus of Umbra, allowing users to search Umbra from anywhere online.

This means that materials in Umbra are discoverable on a course page for African American literature at the University of Minnesota, or at Temple University, or at UCLA. They can even be searched from this very blog post! 


As we continue to seek feedback about how to improve Umbra, we are asking our many partners to consider embedding the widget on appropriate pages for their institutions. The widget is already starting to appear on websites all over the country! (Thank you, Umbra partner, Black Metropolis Research Center in Chicago!) The widget exposes Umbra to a broad audience of users, and demonstrates the vast accessibility of these collections nationally — and potentially internationally.

Umbra web page

The Umbra search widget on the Searchable Databases for the Black Metropolis Research Consortium.

The ways in which the widget functions institutionally are twofold: 1) repositories highlighting and providing access to collections outside of their institutions calls attention to the need for radical, collaborative partnerships; and 2) declaring a commitment to amplifying the parts of our history that have been hidden or silenced, but nonetheless are central.

Learn how to embed the Umbra search widget

You can help us share Umbra by embedding the Umbra search widget on your web pages — blogs, resource pages, and more.

And please give us your feedback about Umbra, too!

Mark Engebretson

Author Mark Engebretson

More posts by Mark Engebretson

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