Students and researchers looking for hard-to-find information concerning African American history and culture will have to search elsewhere after the controversial closing of an educational facility that housed such materials.
The Center for African American History and Culture (CAAHC) was closed by Temple University in October of 2001, that much is clear; the issue becomes murkier when questions as to why the center was shut down are asked.
According the center’s Web site, the CAAHC housed over 350 titles of 19th and 20th century publications on microform, which included “secular and religious organizational records and publications and African American periodicals and newspapers.”
According to the center’s former director, Dr. Bettye Collier-Thomas, the center had been slowly dying due to dwindling University support.
She said that in a discussion with Acting College of Liberal Arts Dean Morris Vogel in June 2000, he “informed me of his intention to dismantle the center’s collections and place them in Paley Library.”
Collier-Thomas, currently participating in a fellowship at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina, resigned from her post on Oct. 16.
She identified several reasons for her decision, which included “diminishing University support for the center, Acting Dean Vogel’s reluctance to appoint an acting director, neglect of the Dean’s office in processing employment requisition for staff replacement in May 2001 and a critical situation regarding staff resignations.”
While Vogel was reluctant to talk about the reasons behind Collier-Thomas’ resignation, he did cite it as the reason behind the closing of the center. Citing a 1999 University committee formed to develop guidelines for the school’s many centers of study, he alluded to “certain issues” Collier-Thomas may have had with “operating within the rules established.”
“Rules were laid down and she may have had issues with those rules,” he said. He declined to elaborate, but did mention possible “budget discipline trouble.”
Collier-Thomas did not agree with Vogel’s view, citing the loss of “several staff positions as a result of attrition; several positions were frozen and eliminated.” She added that by October 2001, the center no longer had a budget, no one was hired to temporarily replace her and two of the three remaining employees had quit, while the third applied for medical leave.
“My resignation and the center’s closing are unrelated. The decision to close the center was made by Temple University,” said Collier-Thomas, who will be returning to her full-time teaching duties in the History department in September. “When administrators resign, the entities they direct are not normally closed.”
The bulk of the orphaned collection, which included microfilm and microfiche collections, soon found a home in the Paley Library. Maurine Pastine, the library’s director, said much of Collier-Thomas’ clippings file, which included photocopied articles from newspapers and magazines, had to be rejected due to the Copyright Act of 1976.
Pastine was concerned with what she had “to do with the library to keep copyright compliance.” She said other materials would be catalogued on the Diamond database.
Vogel was happy with the placement of the materials and felt the move was the only logical step for the collection.
“[It was] the most effective and cost effective way of making the materials widely available. The goal is to preserve the collections and provide access to them,” he said.
Paul Miller, a graduate student and teaching assistant in the African American Studies Department, said the closing was “something that everyone was unprepared for” and described it as being “unacceptable.”
“To me, this is just another instance of an administration that is undermining something that is threatening to them,” he said. “[The center’s collection] certainly belongs in the hands of the African American people. That just makes intuitive sense to me.”
Once he learned of the CAAHC’s fate, he contacted President David Adamany and protested the move.
“Unlike the microform and microfilm sections of Paley Library, from which many items are ‘missing,’ the CAAHC is a place where students and professors can go to research information unavailable elsewhere and be confident that the materials are treated with respect and will be preserved,” he wrote.
Adamany has not responded.
While Miller never used the center before its closure, he understood the importance and convenience of having the materials together in one place.
“It should never have been moved. It had a perfectly good home and was under the direction of people that knew how to negotiate it,” he said. “It makes no sense unless you are trying to make it non-functional.”
He also pointed out that Temple has one of the only Ph.D programs for African American Studies in the country – University of Massachusetts Amherst and California Berkley are also on the short list – and that something like this should not happen.
As for Collier-Thomas, she is resigned to the fact that the CAAHC is closed and will not open again under her directorship, and that the collection will remain separated.
“The issue is no longer a question of collection separation. The issue is making sure the collections are preserved and not destroyed,” she said. “I invested 13 years in defining and creating a center, which was acknowledged by many to be a center of excellence. In the absence of University support, [trying to reopen the CAAHC] would be a fruitless effort.”
Mike Gainer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org