Arts and Culture / Nonprofit Sector

A Conversation with Sandra Phoenix and Tina Rollins about HBCU Library Alliance

June 16, 2022

As technology continues to rapidly evolve, digital humanities organizations have been at the forefront of innovation in humanities. They use technology to improve education and scholarship. And they find new ways to preserve stories, voices, and digital creations.

In June 2020, NFF kicked off a project to support a cohort of digital humanities organizations by deepening and strengthening their financial resilience and adaptability. With more people operating in digital spaces than ever before, the work of digital humanities organizations is crucial for developing, preserving, and sharing cultural artifacts, representations, and scholarly work for generations to come.

Following is an interview with Sandra Phoenix, Executive Director of HBCU Library Alliance, and Tina Rollins, Treasurer for HBCU Library Alliance and Library Director of the William R. and Norma B. Harvey Library at Hampton University. HBCU stands for historically Black colleges and universities, and in this interview, Phoenix and Rollins discuss the unique dynamics that HBCU Library Alliance faces – and how a change capital grant has catalyzed opportunities for growth.

Digital humanities is a broad term and field – how do you define it?

Tina: When we talk about digital humanities, we want to talk about providing access to resources so that they reach the masses. In doing so, digital humanities can open up to a broader area of scholarship and give us the ability to provide multidisciplinary research. It’s more important than ever to showcase our collections to the world, especially with the social paradigm shift in the last few years. We need to look at how history has shaped the narrative of what has happened and what is continuing to happen.

In your own words, can you share a little bit about your organization and what it does?

Sandra: HBCU Library Alliance is the phenomenal membership organization for historically Black colleges and universities libraries. The organization was established in 2002 and incorporated in 2006 with a mission to strengthen its membership by developing library leaders, preserving collections, and planning for the future.

The Alliance is a strong voice of advocacy to help support a growing body of knowledge for this community. We do this through a number of initiatives and partnerships with values-aligned institutions:

  • The HBCU Library Alliance is implementing a five-year program designed to build capacity for the long-term preservation and conservation of collections at member libraries. Through our partnership with the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, the Building Capacity program offers a menu of preservation planning documents, collection surveys, treatment and rehousing services, and educational programs to the member libraries. Through this outreach, the HBCU Library Alliance is assisting the libraries in promoting the humanities significance of their broad collections of rare materials and their irreplaceable cultural heritage artifacts.
  • In our partnership with the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), HBCU Library Alliance members participated in a podcast series sharing the significant, impactful, ongoing work of our libraries with the broader community.
  • With our inaugural non-HBCU member Brown University (RI), a Leadership Institute pilot is underway that will engage both communities in topics including mental wellness, emotional intelligence, social justice and change management.
  • The HBCU Library Alliance Summer Conservation/Preservation Internship Project provides key conservation/preservation skills to undergraduates and invites them to consider librarianship as a career. Students intern virtually or in-person at the Library of Congress, Harvard University, Duke University and other conservation/preservation sites around the country.

The HBCU Library Alliance is changing the face of librarianship as we diversify the profession. 

Tina: As an advocate for HBCU libraries, we especially try to help promote the rich resources of our history and culture, not just of Black America or the Black American experience, but the entire history of the United States.

Can you tell us a story that shows us how your work impacted a person, organization, or community?

Sandra: I am always pleased to highlight students because in all of this, we want to impact our students. The HBCU Library Alliance Conservation/Preservation Internship Program continues to successfully impact the undergraduate educational experience by offering students a fully-funded conservation/preservation internship under the mentorship of professional conservators and library staff at host sites.

Payton Murray is a student at Hampton University who participated in the summer internship project. She was hosted virtually at Harvard. Most recently, she has been competitively selected for a summer internship program in Practical Conservation, a joint program between the University of Delaware and Yale University.

Layla Huff, a Morgan University alumni, interned at the American Philosophical Library Society. She has completed several internships since and is now a post-baccalaureate intern at the Getty Foundation.

Finally, Tempe Stewart participated in the program last year. Tiffany’s grandfather was Michael Kavanagh Perry, a painter and printmaker who was part of the Black Arts movement in California in the 60s and 70s. She will be graduating from Spelman this spring and is currently applying to master’s in library sciences programs. The HBCU Library Alliance is diversifying the profession, and I’m really pleased about that.

What are some of the unique challenges that digital humanities organizations face compared to other humanities and culture organizations?

Tina: Maintenance is one of the issues. Training and having equipment to be able to do digitization work is a challenge for many of our organizations. We needed to shift during COVID to provide access to resources and support courses and researchers in a virtual environment.

And funding, of course. HBCUs are traditionally less funded, and we have always had to do so much more with so much less. HBCU funding opportunities do not always look like funding opportunities for white institutions. Because we have been underfunded, we may not have the staff capacity available to pursue certain grants, or we might not meet certain grant requirements such as the ability to apply for grants which require a cost-match from the university. 

It’s a challenge not having the ability to hire digital humanities librarians due to budget concerns. This is also concerning because librarians with this skillset are essential in helping to connect the rest of the campus community to resources and build partnerships to embed those resources and other parts of the collection within classes.

Starting in June of 2020, our team at NFF got to work with you on strategic financial management. Can you share a little bit about your experience diving into your organization’s finances and looking more closely at things like business models and full cost?

Sandra: It was the most challenging and rewarding work that I've done for this organization, and I've learned so much about how we should speak our financial story. The HBCU community’s story is meaningful because HBCU institutions were founded and established during a period of legal segregation – HBCUs were educating persons who had been enslaved. We do this because of the sacrifices of persons who came before us, and this mission is extremely valuable to us. Having explored these financial lessons, deeply diving into business models has given me a greater sense of confidence to advocate for this organization. 

Tina: It was very empowering to look from a different perspective and ask, “Where do we want to go from here? Where do we want to be? How do we want to get there?” This is a mission of love. We are the organization that brings all the history of these other HBCU’s together. We tell the university’s story, and we want to make sure that we are financially sustainable so that we can continue doing that past our time. I'm much more confident now in our fundraising efforts and capacity. We're a thriving organization, and our work speaks for us. Doing this work has reminded me that there is money out there – there is a way that we can do this. 

What are your plans for the change capital grant that you received from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation?

Sandra: Infrastructure. We're adding staff: a full-time admin, a full-time director of development, a grant writer, a communications consultant, a web design company, and we’re establishing a first-time reserve fund. The change capital grant will allow the HBCU Library Alliance to strengthen its voice of advocacy and strategically provide much-needed services to member libraries.

What have you learned from this initiative that you would like to share with other digital humanities organizations?

Tina: Think big, look at the larger picture, and allow yourself to dream.

That was our driving force in continuing through this sometimes-laborious process. It was about allowing our minds to be blown and say, “Oh, we can do this,” and “We're going to continue to build, be impactful, and sustain our organization.”

Being open to learning was very important. When we've been in the field for so long, we often have preconceived notions about how the process might go. Embrace the opportunity to dream big and learn something new.  

Sandra: Ask all your questions. This process really challenged our thinking and required us to begin thinking differently.

What about advice for other HBCUs?

Tina: There is so much value in the university library.  The same resources that are poured into other academic institutions must be poured into our HBCU libraries. We are the heartbeat of the university because we are the place where all disciplines collide. There is often the underlying assumption that libraries are going to exist forever, regardless of support. But, no – we need continued support to ensure that we can support overall university efforts. You can cut a program, but you cannot cut a library.

Sandra: Ditto.

How can funders support organizations like yours with the right kinds of capital?

Tina: There's a difference between sponsorship and partnership, depending on the initiative. We could find one or the other, or both. 

I'll go back to these recent social injustices that happened, such as George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the other police brutality killings. We saw a lot of organizations want to give to Black non-profits. Why are you wanting to give? What's behind the nature of it? What can you do other than money that's going to help to sustain us and grow our organization? Are you just giving us this to sponsor this effort?

That's fine, but we've also seen a lot of organizations that want to partner with us. And we have to be very careful about who we partner with because partnership means just that. It is not just using us as an add-on to say, “We partnered with the HBCU Alliance.”

We want partners who are willing to do the work with us, getting in there helping to fundraise with us or presenting us with the opportunity to meet funders. Whatever programming that we're doing is together. They're not just trying to take over and do it and add our name to it.

Also, prospective partners should learn about our efforts. Know who we are, know why we exist, know our purpose, know our mission. Especially for Black nonprofits, know more about us other than just that we're a Black nonprofit. Know why we stand and be able to be an ally and do the work with us. I'm not into performative social activism. And if you're going to say you want to fund me and assist me, make sure that you're standing up for the things that we believe in and make sure you're supporting us.

We are open to partnerships because it takes all of us to do this work. It takes everyone.


This blog is part of a series of conversations with leaders of digital humanities organizations about their experiences at the forefront of innovation in humanities as well as how change capital grants catalyzed opportunities for growth. Read more:

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