Teaching Archives and Learning from Them: Segregation of African Americans in Early Library Science Education

Anthony Cocciolo


This presentation will discuss a pedagogical technique of having students engage in practice-based activities including appraising, processing, and make accessible via an online finding aid an archival collection as a way of integrating theory with practice in an introductory archives course. After introducing this teaching technique, the presentation will move onto discussing an unintended and unexpected outcome of this pedagogical approach, which is the work of students and instructor to find records and subsequently reconstruct a noteworthy historical narrative. Specifically, while working to process the archival records of Pratt Institute’s School of Information—the school which hosts the oldest library science program in the North America—a letter is discovered that makes clear that the school had an explicit practice of not admitting African American students during its first fifty years. Through further research, it is found that this practice of exclusion was not unique to Pratt but was perpetuated in large part by northern Library Schools and enabled by the American Library Association that did not want to integrate library schools in the north.

Students work to recover the circumstances surrounding the admission of the school’s first African American student in 1942, Alice Roberts (1921-2014). Using School records but also reaching out to Roberts’ family in Virginia, it is found that the closing of the library science program at Hampton Institute in 1939 (a historically black college in Virginia) required Roberts to seek educational opportunity in the north. Hampton Institute’s library science program was formed as part of a “southern strategy” of the American Library Association with the support of private foundations to provide library science education to African American in the south. The Hampton Institute played the crucial role of relieving northern schools from the pressure to admit African American students, and with its dissolution in 1939 the pressure returned, causing northern library schools like Pratt the need to reconsider their practice of non-admission. Students put on an exhibition of materials related to Alice Roberts, her admission to the school, and the circumstances surrounding the segregation of African American in early LIS education that Roberts family members attend.


Anthony Cocciolo is an associate professor at Pratt Institute School of Information in New York City. He is also the program coordinator for the Archives and MSLIS programs. His research and teaching area in the archives area, with a special interest in born-digital archives. He has recently completed a book project titled Moving Image and Sound Collections for Archivists which is scheduled to be published by the Society of American Archivists in summer 2017. He completed his doctorate from the Communication, Media and Learning Technologies Design program at Teachers College, Columbia University, and B.S. in Computer Science from the University of California, Riverside. You can learn more about him on his website, http://www.thinkingprojects.org.