Nonprofit Sector

Completing the Historical Narrative

April 26, 2023

Where We Go From Here

Sandra Phoenix, Executive Director, HBCU Library Alliance, Tina Rollins, Board Treasurer, HBCU Library Alliance

“The thing about HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities) is that the collections that we have tell the story of not just Black America, but of America,” says Tina Rollins, Board Treasurer of the HBCU Library Alliance. Since 2002 the HBCU Library Alliance has been dedicated to strengthening HBCU library professionals through internship programs, leadership development, and collaborations with other universities. They also work to preserve the history housed in HBCUs though digital humanities – collecting, preserving, and making accessible archival collections for broader scholarship. “History is now incomplete,” Sandra Phoenix, Executive Director of the HBCU Library Alliance says, “our stories – because I speak from this community – authenticate the American historical narrative.” 

In this conversation Sandra and Tina share their experience in preserving historical documents and developing future digital humanities leaders and offer advice to other leaders of digital humanities projects. Joining them is Sherr Lo, Director, Consulting at NFF. 

In this video:  

  • What the HBCU Library Alliance does. (0:23) 

  • What digital humanities are, and how the HBCU Library Alliance fits in. (0:52) 

  • The importance of this work, and the love that goes into it. (2:10) 

  • How HBCUs house not just Black history, but America’s history. (2:57)  

  • The importance of HBCU students as future digital humanities leaders. (4:17) 

  • Using patience, perseverance, and celebration to keep the work moving. (6:20) 

  • Moving past preservation to accessibility. (7:41) 

  • The value of HBCU library collections and hope for the future. (8:52) 


TINA: Upon closer inspection, the checkout date was 1900.  

SHERR: Oh, my goodness. 

SANDRA: And I know you kept that. 


TINA: I did, I took it. 


SHERR: Could you introduce yourself and tell me a little bit about the work that you do? 

TINA: I am Tina Rollins. I serve as University Library Director for Hampton University, and I serve as Board Treasurer for the HBCU Library Alliance. 

SANDRA: I'm Sandra Phoenix, Executive Director of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Library Alliance. The work that we do involves library leadership, preserving collections, and planning for the future of the HBCU community. 

SHERR: So, in a few sentences, could you describe digital humanities as a field and HBCU Library Alliance's work within that field? 

TINA: Digital humanities, kind of gives an opportunity to access collections that may be in print or projects that could actually be beneficial to the broader engagement of scholarship and for the community – not just the humanities community, but any sort of community. Digital humanities actually takes those objects or develops projects to actually present those ideas and research to a broader community. 

SANDRA: I echo all that Tina has said: the broadening of scholarship so that all can be aware of the contributions of our stories and our voices. And then the importance of accessibility, once again, so that scholarship can be broad and that there is this awareness and consciousness and knowledge of those collections, those stories, those important voices completing this American history narrative. 

SHERR: What's your favorite part about the work that you do? 

SANDRA: Most recently, I have felt a somewhat stronger sense to do this because it is even more important at this time. 

TINA: It is truly a labor of love. And it gives me an inherent purpose because I know the work that we are doing is so important. And I know that at this stage in life, in this career, this is something that's important to me – and that I have to use my talent, treasure, and tools to support that work because I want to see us continue to thrive and grow. 

SHERR: What do people not understand about your work that you wish they did? 

TINA: The thing about HBCUs is that the collections that we have tell the story of not just Black America, but of America. Like, I know at Hampton University we have a collection of anti-slavery pamphlets – hundreds of anti-slavery pamphlets from the 1700s, and going into the 1800s – that, you know, just the scholarship and history that are there that we can look at some of the nuances that happened in the past and compare them to look at the shift and paradigm shift in society and different things that have occurred. Those are things that people are interested in, but because we just had them in a box, or people have to visit Hampton to come get them, it in a sense is hidden. 

SANDRA: There should be no hidden collections at HBCUs, I preach that to the choir daily. You know, there should be none. The stories are just too important, and the stories complete the narrative. You know, history now is incomplete. It's incomplete. And some of it is inaccurate and is not always authentic. So, our stories – and others – but our stories, because I speak from this community, authenticate the American historical narrative. 

SHERR: I love your vision statement for HBCU Library Alliance. Could you tell me a little bit more about how you implement that vision? 

TINA: The project that I'm very, very proud of, because some of my HU students were involved, is our summer internship program in conservation and preservation. And it's in partnership with the University of Delaware. And so, we partnered with them through other funding through the Kress Foundation to bring in students from HBCUs to participate in preservation and conservation summer internships. And in the first iteration of the program, I had an HU student, I believe, go to Yale and actually work on a preservation and conservation program there. And just seeing how she started and that student coming back, she was like another person – like her confidence had grown. And then we had, we've done this cohort now about, probably four times. 

SANDRA: Five years. 

TINA: Five years. And I've had about four other HU students go. And just seeing the engagement that our students have had and listening to their projects. And what was so cool from the first year that I had the student at Yale, this past summer we had her sister, who actually did an internship with Duke. And we always see how the students grow. 

SANDRA: When I speak about this project, when I speak about conservation, preservation, when I speak about students interning at Library of Congress or Harvard or Yale or Duke or the American Philosophical Society, that's wonderful that our students get that opportunity. And I say this all the time: The big piece of that is that these host sites, the Yales, Library of Congress, Duke, they are able to be honored by, to be privileged with, a connection to these distinguished undergraduate students from historically Black colleges and universities. That's the gift of that experience. 

SHERR: What's one lesson you've learned on the job that you think more people should know? 

TINA: Leadership and management are two totally separate entities, and I don't think people understand that management is the harder part. It’s easy to have those big ideas and say, yes, I want to do this, I want to do that. But to manage those things, that's where the patience and perseverance have to come in. 

SANDRA: I've learned that I need to celebrate. I've learned that when it becomes challenging – and when I celebrate – I need to reach out and bring others into that experience. And I've learned to be ready for the peaks and the valleys and what happens in the middle. 

TINA: And also, I want to say, make sure you have a community and team around you that will celebrate your highs, but also be there as a support for when things don't always go right. Have a community of like-minded people, like-minded organizations that we can celebrate our success collectively and also learn from the lessons of things that didn't go right. And I think that's been such a great part of being part of this cohort, that we've been able to engage and learn from each other. 

SHERR: What advice would you give to other leaders of digital humanities projects? 

TINA: I feel that, you know, we have to not just focus on preserving and collecting, but more so focus on, “What do you want to do with that information?” Because when you just collect everything and you preserve everything, you're essentially hoarding. And you're digitally hoarding things. Because we do a lot of that in humanities organizations, you know? You know, look at a library, it’s a hoarder’s paradise. 


TINA: It's a hoarder’s paradise. And we deal with that in libraries because we're so inherently focused on the preservation of things. But we have to focus on, okay, now we're moving from preserving print collections. We can't also become hoarders of digital collections because essentially you have to deselect those digital projects. So, be purposeful with what you preserve and make sure within that purpose you're not only thinking about, oh, “We have to keep this,” but also, “How and what are we going to do with this to make it accessible? 

SHERR: What's the value of preserving these materials? 

TINA: I think what I would like to see is not only us engaging with other humanities organizations, collaborating as a unit, our different schools together, but also looking at outside entities like corporations and other private investors and helping people to look at the materials that we have, present it to the broader masses to engage in a more thoughtful society. I really would like to see that, and I think the idea is to engage with entities that are not always like us. I mean, imagine if we had big corporations investing in our HBCU libraries and archives and using their tools and materials to help us bring community projects together – community humanities projects – things which we can all engage in. 

SANDRA: I am optimistic that at some point in this that there will be greater communications between the alliance and other organizations about the value of our work and how our work somehow complements other scholarship experiences. I am hopeful that this work also engages our students even more so that as they matriculate through their college experiences, that they have this new awareness of who they are as people of this community. I am also hopeful that through this work – and I'm really speaking outside the box now – that through this work that my grandchildren and that their grandchildren will see this HBCU as a strong, strong institution that has enabled them to understand the experiences, the work, the value, the purpose of those who came before them. And that they should use that. Use that strength, use that wisdom, and use that knowledge in changing what needs to be changed in community. 


Watch more episodes of Where We Go From Here.