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Building a Table: Advocacy Building at a Small, Private, Liberal Arts, HBCU Archive in the American South

Published onMar 14, 2022
Building a Table: Advocacy Building at a Small, Private, Liberal Arts, HBCU Archive in the American South


I have spent most of my career working in libraries, public and academic. While there are some fundamental differences between public and academic libraries, these institutions face similar issues and obstacles of funding, staffing, support, and visibility. Furthermore, cultural heritage libraries and archives face significantly more barriers within these two categories. In this case study, I will focus on Historically Black College and University (HBCU) Archives, particularly the John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library Special Collections and Archives, and my experience advocating for our collections in my role as Special Collections Librarian at Fisk University. 

The Fisk University, John Hope and Aurelia Elizabeth Franklin Library, Special Collections and Archives preserve and promote African and African American History and Culture, including local African American History of Nashville, Tennessee. As a tiny private Historically Black College and University (HBCU) Library and Archive, we operate under a small budget and limited support for digitizing collections. Understanding the Franklin Library Special Collections and Archives needed to find ways to maintain an active presence within the university's evolving academic landscape while creating a stronger connection to the North Nashville community and the wider southeastern region without having an open, accessible online collection.


The Franklin Library Special Collections partnered with the School of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences, specifically with faculty from the English and Art departments at Fisk University, Martin Luther King, Jr. Magnet School, and the Pearl High School Archives, to explore new ways to build and develop partnerships between institutional-based and community-based archives. By combining traditional archival instruction with hybrid teaching and learning aimed at institutional promotion and outreach, the Fisk Photograph Collection became an advocacy tool that has led to the Franklin Library's Special Collections and Archives enhanced value, paving the way for additional support for digitization efforts. 

I recalled from a course I took at Rare Book School (RBS), L-50: Special Collections Leadership Seminar, we discussed demonstrating value and impactful storytelling. There was a particular method of advocacy that I gravitated toward through the RBS course and chose to implement within the project, "Persuasive Presentations." Once, explained to my colleagues on the project, we agreed that this method would bring impactful meaning. "Persuasive Presentations," a concept Dorie Clark, marketing strategist, keynote speaker, and professor at Duke University, recommends employing as a strategy with steps aimed at getting "buy-in": 

High-stakes presentations (Dorie Clark):

  • Start with the problem

  • Explain why now the right time is to solve the problem

  • Review how your idea has been vetted

  • Keep the structure simple

  • Use stories

  • Make sure you have a clear call to action

Although Clark's method focuses on persuasive presentations, it can be applied to any advocacy-based initiative. For our team, we felt our project should address specific issues and raise the profile of the collections and the importance of accessibility in terms of a digital repository. We also knew of gentrification in North Nashville, the erasure of its unique history, and how valuable the Becoming North Nashville project could be to fostering a connection between the community and our archives. Lastly, this project needed to draw in new voices and support for the digitization of our Fisk Photograph Collections. 


The successful completion of the project brought two educational institutions into conversation and collaboration with one another, opened up the discussion of community identity to the public via the public performance and exhibition, showcased the Fisk University Special Collections, and sparked new initiatives. The long-term goal to create a pipeline between Fisk, MLK, and the surrounding community continues as a top priority with plans for the future. Our team aims to generate regular, annual collaborations between more educational institutions from this point forward. In addition, hopes are to foster future exhibits and projects in partnership with other North Nashville institutions and organizations, such as the Norf Arts Collective and the Tennessee State Museum and Archives (which recently opened a new facility only blocks away from Fisk). With these and future collaborations, faculty will develop innovative curricular practices. Students at the secondary and higher education levels will be exposed to new research methodologies and local histories. Ultimately, with records of attendance and the creation of other similar and perhaps more extensive projects, "Becoming North Nashville" will be the first step in promoting a collective cultural identity in the North Nashville community with Fisk University and Martin Luther King High School at its center.


This project helped shift and garner additional support for substantial growth in the Franklin Library Special Collections and Archives area. As a result, in early 2020, the Franklin Library Digitization Center at Fisk University opened. The center is currently being used for digitizing two important collections, the Julius Rosenwald Archives and the Fiskiana Collection, including the Fisk Photograph collection. The outcomes of this project can be attributed in part to the project but most significantly to the strategy employed. It was essential for everyone involved to tell a compelling story and not leave anything on the table for anyone to question why they should not support HBCU archives like Fisk's and community-based archives. No matter where you are, be intentional in telling your story and building a table that fits your needs. 


Clark, D. (2016, October 11). A Checklist for More Persuasive Presentations. Harvard Business Review.

Singh, R. & Trinchetta, G. G. (2020) Community Connections: Advocating for Libraries through Effective Brand Advocacy, Public Library Quarterly, 39(4), 295-309. doi: 10.1080/01616846.2019.1613626

Welch, J. M., Hoffius, S. D., & Fox, E. B. (2011). Archives, accessibility, and advocacy: a case study of strategies for creating and maintaining relevance. Journal of the Medical Library Association, 99(1), 57–60.

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