THE SCHOMBURG CENTER for Research in Black Culture in Harlem has a new leader. The New York Public Library announced Joy Bivins will serve as the next director of the renowned cultural institution, a library and research center where the papers of James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Maya Angelou are housed.

Bivins is being elevated to the position. Since June 2020, Bivins has been associate director of Collections and Research Services at the Schomburg. Previously, she served as the chief curator at the International African American Museum (IAAM) in Charleston, S.C.

She officially begins her new role as director of the Schomburg June 21, succeeding Kevin Young. A poet and author, Young joined the center as director in 2016 and departed in January to head the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

 


Joy Bivins is the new director of the Schomburg Center in Harlem. She will be the first woman to lead the institution since the tenure of Jean Blackwell Hutson, who served from 1948 to 1980. | Photo by Jonathan Blanc, NYPL

 

“The skill set that Joy has is absolutely critical for the moment that we are in. We did an exhaustive search for many months, and it was clear to everyone that Joy brought so much to the table, a unique set of expertise needed at this historic time,” William Kelly, the New York Public Library’s Andrew W. Mellon Director of the Research Libraries, said in the announcement.

“This job has so many components. You have to be a librarian. A curator. You need to understand preservation and processing. You need to be a storyteller. You need to understand how to best share stories and present collections. She can do it all. She has been such a caring, inspirational leader over the last extremely challenging year, and I look forward to seeing all that she will accomplish as the director.”

“We did an exhaustive search for many months, and it was clear to everyone that Joy brought so much to the table, a unique set of expertise needed at this historic time.”
— William Kelly, NYPLDirector of the Research Libraries

AS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR of collections and research services at the Schomburg, Bivins has been leading five resource divisions—the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division; Jean Blackwell Hutson General Research and Reference Division; Art and Artifacts Division; Photographs and Prints Division; and Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division. She also serves as chief curator overseeing acquisitions, collections processing, and curatorial activities.

Prior to joining the Schomburg, Bivins served for two years at chief curator of the forthcoming International African American Museum, managing curatorial staff and the content and design of inaugural exhibitions. The Charleston museum is scheduled to open next year. Bivins spent the majority of her career at the Chicago History Museum (2002-18), where she rose from exhibition developer to director of curatorial affairs.

Bivins earned a bachelor’s degree in history and Afro-American and African Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a master’s degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University. In the summer of 2001, she was a student at Cornell when she first visited the Schomburg Center to conduct research for her thesis.

 


The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem is hosting a weeklong, virtual Literary Festival beginning June 14. | Photo Courtesy Schomburg Center, NYPL

 

THE SCHOMBURG is one of the world’s leading institutions dedicated to African American, African Diasporan, and African life, history, and culture. Part of the New York Public Library system, the branch was established on 135th Street in Harlem in 1905, and became the Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints in 1925.

A year later, the library acquired Arturo Alfonso Schomburg’s collection of African American literature. Schomburg, a Puerto Rican-born scholar and bibliophile of African descent, served as curator of the Division, from 1932 until he died in 1938. In 1971, the institution was named for him.

Today, the Schomburg collection contains more than 11 million items. The materials include books, manuscripts, art, photography, newspapers, sheet music, sound and video recordings, and the archives of Baldwin, Angelou, Malcolm X, Harry Belafonte, Ann Petry, Sonny Rollins, and Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, among others.

The center’s art and photography collections are particularly strong. The holdings include paintings, works on paper, sculpture, textiles, and material culture, with strengths in the Harlem Renaissance and WPA periods. Aaron Douglas, Edward Mitchell Bannister, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, and Jacob Lawrence are among the artists represented.

Dating from the mid-18th century to present, the photography collection spans documentary, portrait, and fine art images by figures such Gordon Parks, James VanDerZee, Edward Steichen, Coreen Simpson, Bert Andrews, and Chester Higgins.

“The stories that the Schomburg’s collections tell are so important, and should be shared as broadly as possible. Making those collections as accessible as possible to those in Harlem, in New York City, and beyond must be a priority. It’s one thing to have collections. It’s another to make them accessible, and then another to make sense of what they mean to our current world. That’s what I’m excited to share,” Bivins said in a statement.

“The Schomburg Center, with its robust collections and rich legacy, has a key role to play in this moment, bringing people together, facilitating conversations, and continuing to ensure that the perspectives and histories of the Black community and members of the African Diaspora are preserved and understood.” — Joy Bivins

LATER THIS MONTH, when she gets to work, Bivins has a full agenda. In addition to making the collections more accessible to a wider array of people on-site and digitally, she plans to focus on raising the overall profile of the Schomburg.

She told the New York Times she also wants to expand the collection’s Caribbean and Latin American resources and, mindful of the contemporary moment, said “she believes the center now has a ‘unique’ opportunity to facilitate conversation about the past year—including about the Black Lives Matter movement—partly by providing historical context for more recent events.” Her first priority is managing the Schomburg’s post-pandemic transition to regular operating hours and services.

“After a year of unprecedented isolation, during which we saw the centrality of the Black Lives Matter movement, we need to come together again and make sense of what we have lived through. The Schomburg Center, with its robust collections and rich legacy, has a key role to play in this moment, bringing people together, facilitating conversations, and continuing to ensure that the perspectives and histories of the Black community and members of the African Diaspora are preserved and understood,” Bivins said in a statement.

“In my career, I have worked to help others make sense of history, to make connections between the past and the present, and to help create a true understanding of where we are now and where we are going. I am extremely humbled and thankful for the opportunity to take those expertise and lead the incredible, expert team at the Schomburg Center through this critical moment. I look forward to every minute.” CT

 

COMING SOON The Schomburg’s annual Literary Festival opens June 14. The weeklong event is virtual this year and its theme is inspired by the words of Langston Hughes: “Words Like Freedom”

ON VIEW The Schomburg currently has three exhibitions on view: “Georgia on My Mind: Black Politicians in Congress” (online only); “Traveling While Black: A Century of Pleasure & Pain & Pilgrimage”; and “Subversion & The Art of Slavery Abolition.” Timed tickets are currently required for the on-site exhibitions. Check with the Schomburg for visiting hours and information

 

BOOKSHELF
“Arthur Alfonso Schomburg: Black Bibliophile & Collector” and “Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg,” explore the man for whom Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is named. For children, “Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library” was published in 2019. Several volumes have been published over the years, drawing on the Schomburg’s collections, including “St. James Guide to Black Artists,” “The Black New Yorkers: The Schomburg Illustrated Chronology,” and “The Schomburg Center Guide to Black Literature: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present,” Also consider, “African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song,” a Library of America anthology edited by Kevin Young.

 

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