Schomburg Center Director Joy Bivins on Collecting, Serving the Public, and the Importance of Access

On June 4, Joy Bivins was named Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a research division of The New York Public Library. LJ caught up with her as she settled into her new role to discuss the overlap between collecting for museums and libraries, what has changed in the past year and a half, and what the Schomburg’s users can expect.

Joy Bivins head shotOn June 4, Joy Bivins was named Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a research division of The New York Public Library. As the Schomburg Center’s associate director of collections and research services since June 2020, Bivins led the Schomburg’s five public service divisions and served as chief curator. Previously, she served as chief curator of the International African American Museum in Charleston, SC, and director of Curatorial Affairs at the Chicago History Museum.

Bivins succeeds Kevin Young, now director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. She will be the first woman to lead the Schomburg Center since Jean Blackwell Hutson, who served as director from 1948 to 1980.

LJ caught up with Bivins as she settled into her new role to discuss the overlap between collecting for museums and libraries, what has changed in the past year and a half, and what the Schomburg’s users can expect.

LJ: What sparked your desire to become a curator?

Joy Bivins: It’s not a typical path. Being a curator was not necessarily on my to-do list. At some point during graduate school, when I realized I didn’t want to proceed to a PhD, I was trying to figure out how to still be involved in education and the intellectual process, but more public. Museums became an avenue for that. All my early jobs were in museums. I started as an exhibition developer, and then that led to becoming a curator. My time at the Chicago History Museum, learning what it meant to be a curator—but also learning that being a curator in different places means different things—was immensely valuable. My path just grew, as I was allowed to explore what that meant at this one institution, and then it kind of cross-pollinated into work at other places.

Can you talk a bit about the overlap between the missions of collecting for a museum and a library?

They’re both oranges, but they’re different kinds of oranges, or both apples but different kinds of apples. The synchronicity is the drive to acquire, locate, pursue, and bring into collections different kinds of objects. The Schomburg collects across media, not just books, and not just archives or papers—moving image and recorded sound and art and artifacts. We have so many functions that overlap with what happens in museums—exhibition making, programming, publication, all are part of our portfolio.

But what is different is the access level. Ultimately, one of my curators said, I don’t distinguish between the academic scholar and the young person from around the corner who wants to see the Jacob Lawrences or the Romare Beardens that we have in our collection. That kind of access is rarely granted in museums. We put it out there for you to see, and we decide what you should see. That’s changing a lot in terms of crowdsourced exhibitions, but ultimately, at a museum it’s about our interpretation of the objects that we have and what’s important. [At the Schomburg] there is a bit more flexibility, I think, and certainly a greater deal of accessibility for the public to the materials that we acquire. For me, that’s the starkest difference.

How have your thoughts about your role within the Schomburg changed with the directorship?

The Schomburg, as an inspiration for other Black institutions that are about the work of collecting and documenting the lives and the cultures of people of African descent, is one that is quite critical. We definitely see ourselves as a beacon, a vanguard, for our colleagues who do this work, and as the director I want to continue that. My role, in addition to making sure that my colleagues are well taken care of and that they can grow to the level that they need to, is to make sure that this institution is sustainable, and can continue to prove a model for other institutions that do similar kind of work. I take this seriously as a stewardship of not just the things, but the idea behind it. The role is a lot of things. There’s always administration, and fundraising, and all of that, but all that is serving to make sure that this institution can continue to do what it was established to do. We are all stewards of that. So I partner with my staff, my colleagues, in making sure that the cultural heritage that we hold here is available for as many people as possible, and will continue to be available into the future.

The strategy remains very much focused on people of the African diaspora—people of African descent, what they produce, what they create, whether that’s literature, or in some instances music, like Sonny Rollins, or art, like Jacob Lawrence. Much of it has been focused on people of African descent in the United States. I would like to see in the next few years, the collection grow and focus a little bit more on the Caribbean, South America, other parts of the diaspora. Place trumps a lot of things in collecting—we’re here in the United States, so other aspects of the collection require a bit of thought, and I’m working with the curators and my colleagues to figure out how to pursue that. Also, I’m listening to what they want to collect—they are the experts on their holdings. We’ve been looking at how to represent more female artists within the archives, and that will remain a focus. So we’re working together to figure out where we want to take the Schomburg collections.

What parts of your museum experiences are proving to be most useful at the Schomburg?

The International African American Museum was very much about the diaspora, but it’s very place-based. Likewise, the Chicago History Museum is telling a national story, but it’s telling it through the lens of a specific place, the city of Chicago. What I’m bringing to this position from both of those places is the importance of the specificity of place. We’re in Harlem, we’re in New York City. It’s a hub of all kinds of creativity and cultural production that helps us to understand the larger diaspora.

What has surprised you?

The breadth of this collection, and that the curators were able to acquire from folks who had very deep relationship with the Schomburg Center. I mention Jacob Lawrence all the time, his relationship with the Schomburg Center, Romare Bearden, Ella Baker, people whom I’ve admired my whole life. I went through the Traveling While Black exhibition, and I was like, wait, what—this is here? There are objects here from folks I’ve studied throughout my life. The material culture, the evidence of things that I’ve read about, is actually in this collection, and that is amazing. It’s what we want people to know, and what we want to share.

How has the current moment—a year and a half of the pandemic, social unrest, and longstanding inequities made visible—influenced your thoughts about inclusion, accessibility, or any other aspect of the Schomburg’s mission?

I’ve been here at the Library since June 2020, so my whole experience has been during the pandemic. What I have watched my colleagues do is document the ways in which the pandemic has impacted people of African descent globally. What tends to be borne out in that kind of research and documentation are the disparities between our communities and the dominant community. And that is something that we are committed to doing—always placing that Black voice within the center of whatever story it is. How we do that is what is changing. What I think about in terms of accessibility is how can we bring materials in with the understanding that when they’re here, we mean for them to be translated to the public, to be available for the public. And sometimes there are barriers to that.

The diversity part goes back to what I was mentioning: the diaspora of Black people is not a monolith and therefore we always have to be thinking about how does this represent a different voice within a larger culture? And who is left out? That goes back to making sure that there are more women included across our collections, and more contemporary voices. Those are the ways in which we’re thinking about diversity, access, and inclusion—how we bring things in so that they become as accessible as possible as quickly as possible; what is missing in our collection, and pursuing those things first, not to the elimination of other voices, but making sure that we create some equity within the collection.

What’s come out of the pandemic is basically how do you run two businesses—one that is digital and one that is analog. We have people coming in, and we want to serve them, but we want everybody to stay healthy. And then we have this whole—what seems to me like a universe, basically, of possibility on these digital platforms. It makes things more possible, but it also creates a lot of work. It’s a frontier moment, one that every kind of cultural institution was marching to, and then we just got pushed in the pool. We work here with a lot of really bright people who are trying to figure out what this means in a setting that is public—not a university setting where you can create all kinds of firewalls—where we have people who may never step into the library, but they have as much right to see the material as those who do. These are the questions that everybody here at the library is trying to wrestle with, because you want that physical interaction, but it is a whole new world.

Do you have thoughts on new programs or exhibits you’d like to institute?

When I first got here my goal was to get to know my curators, get to know what their interests were, and create relationships. I spent a year doing that, and now I have another several years to figure out what the Schomburg will be in the future. The big thing that I’m thinking about, and I want everybody here to be thinking about, is the centennial [in 2025]. Sankofa is the spirit of the Schomburg in many ways, because it’s about both looking back and looking forward. So in planning for the centennial, what we’re really planning for is what the future of this institution is.

We’ve had this longstanding project called Home to Harlem, a Mellon-funded initiative, where we’ve been looking at the seed library that [Arturo Alfonso] Schomburg sold to the New York Public Library to create this collection. There’s been a lot of library archaeology going on, trying to understand that collection and how it bears out the relationships that Mr. Schomburg had, with whom, what he was interested in, and how he thought that these objects were about showing the contributions of Black people to not just the history of the New World, but to the world. Folks should look in the future for exhibitions that really focus on that seed collection, the basis of the Schomburg.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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