Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Archival Treasures

My latest GOLDEN CITY is up and it celebrates the hidden heroes of the Yiddish world: the archivists. Really, it was just an excuse to go downtown and finally see the new home of the Forverts and, most importantly, hang out with Forverts archivist, Chana Pollack. 

(1944 Forward Association board ballot, courtesy of the Forverts photo archive)

I won't say too much about my visit with Chana because I want you to read the column. But even given the ups and downs the Forverts archive has been through, its very existence something of a gorgeous miracle. In this age of declining heritage media, it’s far from certain that a publication will even be able to retain its own archive. The recent case of Johnson Publishing, the parent company of Jet and Ebony, is an object lesson in the vulnerability of magazine archives..

Since 1942 Johnson has been the owner and publisher of Ebony and Jet. Over the decades it assembled an astounding archive of some five million photographs. (Compare that to the 40,000 photos held by the Forward, many of which were purchased from news services.) As the climate turned sour for magazines in the last few years, Johnson Publishing tried to use its photo archive to stabilize its finances. It first tried to sell the archive outright and then used it as collateral for a loan from a venture capitalist firm. That firm happened to be run by Mellody Hobson, a high powered financier who happens to be married to a director you might have heard of, George Lucas. 

Johnson Publishing ended up defaulting on the loan. The latest news from various law suits related to Johnson's finances make it look like the photo archive will be acquired by Hobson and Lucas. In recent court filings, they argued that, despite the archive’s high-tech preservation system, it was sitting on uninsured rental property and thus incredibly vulnerable. That may be lawsuit filing exaggeration but... still. Y i k e s.

This article says the archive may yet end up in a museum. It’s not a terrible outcome, or rather, no worse than the many sad endings of many other beloved publications and their associated commodifiable assets. Ebony and Jet will continue in some form, with new owners. But considering how integral their photographs were to their identity, their future seems questionable. The archive will take on a new kind of life elsewhere, possibly with a new audience for its riches.  

But consider this: At one point Johnson Publishing was the largest African-American owned business in the country. Its photography documented the Civil Rights struggle and won Pulitzer Prizes. Johnson’s five million photograph collection is far larger than the 300,000 photographs at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the mere 37,000 items held by the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Johnson Publishing’s photo archive could be the largest extant photographic archive documenting African-American life. Its dispersal via lawsuit may turn out to have serious, unintended consequences. The constitution and control of archives are of utmost importance in writing history, all the more so when it comes to minorities and marginalized peoples. 

I'm reminded again that with no Office of Patrimony (or something similar), precious American historical materials can end up at the mercy of the free market.  As legacy publications face uncertain futures in the face of declining ad revenues (and the domination of social media)  I hope that the story of Johnson Publishing's photo archive will spur a conversation between commercial publications and archival and museum specialists. How can these different sectors come together to make long term plans for commercial archives?It remains to be seen...

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