Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture: Harlem Renaissance, Maya Angelou manuscripts, Steve Biko letters

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Our Compelling Collections series continues today with Joy Bivins, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of The New York Public Library in New York City. 

What is the mission of your library?

For nearly 100 years, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has been one of the world’s premier cultural institutions devoted to the collection, preservation, and interpretation of materials focused on African American, African Diaspora, and African experiences. As one of The New York Public Library’s renowned research libraries, the Schomburg Center hosts public programs, exhibitions, open archives, and festivals and makes its robust collection of materials related to the histories and cultures of Black people available to anyone with a library card. We continue to further the vision of our founder Arturo Schomburg to collect and make accessible the world’s knowledge of Black History. 

How many works are in the library?

Since our founding in 1925, the Schomburg Center has amassed holdings of over 11 million items. This includes books, ephemera, music, films, personal papers and archives, photography, art, and more documenting the histories and cultures of people of African descent throughout the world. One of the most incredible things about Schomburg is the volume and diversity of material someone can explore in just one of our collecting divisions. For example, our Art and Artifacts division stewards the largest collection of work by Augusta Savage in a public institution, our general research and reference division features searchable databases with access to the full image reproduction of Ebony and Jet magazines, and our prints and photograph collection contains images that date to the beginning of the medium. 

What is your most noteworthy collection?

It would be difficult to select just one collection as our holdings are incredibly rich. Most often there is an interest in the collections of James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Ruby Dee & Ossie Davis, Malcolm X, and of course, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg- the bibliophile and collector who pioneered our collection. 

What collections are most frequently accessed by researchers?

We see a large, varied amount of interest across our divisions but we definitely know that the work and archives of Harlem Renaissance luminaries are incredibly popular, especially in our Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books division. But as a library and a public resource we also see a large amount of patron interest in our public spaces and offerings like our exhibitions, public programs, and our research and reference division. Patrons often know that this is a space where you can watch a film in the Moving Image and Recorded Sound division, attend a book talk, and view an exhibition all in one day. 

What are you looking to acquire? What areas are you looking to build in?

It is a really interesting time to be a collecting institution and as we move into our next century, we want to double down on our commitment to collecting from across the African diaspora. Additionally and importantly, we are looking to be more intentional about acquiring materials from women creators. Each of these fronts will ensure that we can support the work of Black Studies researchers well into the future.

What are some of your favorite works or collections in your library?

I have long had a deep interest in collections and objects and their ability to illuminate the past. Some of my favorite collections give you a view into a creator’s process, such as Maya Angelou’s handwritten manuscripts. Others strike a familiar chord such as bound copies of Ebony, which is personally significant for me. And, then there are the things that inspire awe such as the unpublished final chapter of The Autobiography of Malcolm X or art work by Elizabeth Catlett or Jacob Lawrence. Schomburg’s collections really encompass and reflect so much of the creative life blood of Black people. 

Inside the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Inside the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

The JBH Research Library at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

The JBH Research Library at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

What are some unexpected collections in your library?

Interestingly enough, if it has something to do with the creativity of Black people across time I expect it to be in the library. In fact, one of the things that I love most about the Schomburg is the way our holdings run the gamut of Black experience. Some materials speak to the pain, pleasure, and complexity of Black life. In a previous Exhibition entitled Traveling While Black we featured letters from Steve Biko, a scrapbook from a Black American motorcycle club, and the Green Book which helped Black folks navigate travel during segregation. All that to say is if you can imagine it, there probably is something here that will speak to it. 

If your library hosts exhibitions, do you have anything upcoming?

We host new exhibitions frequently, but we always encourage patrons to learn more about opening dates on There, you can also learn more about our festivals like our Black Comic Book Festival and our Literary Festival which are unique features of our programming calendar.