Reviewed February 2018
Elaine Thornton, Distance Education Librarian
University of Arkansas
Black New Yorkers is a digital exhibit presented by the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery, a division of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library (NYPL). The center currently hosts seven online exhibits, and Black New Yorkers represents a valuable addition to the Center’s online presence.
Curated by Dr. Sylviane A. Diouf, the Black New Yorkers exhibit includes photographs, essays, maps, documents, manuscripts, and newspapers. Partly based on the book The Black New Yorkers: The Schomburg Illustrated Chronology by Howard Dodson, Christopher Moore, and Roberta Yancy, the exhibition traces 400 years of black experiences in the city that became New York. The home page opens with an engaging interactive timeline that divides the exhibit into five eras. Each era is marked by an extensive summary essay placed in an interactive box with related images presented alongside the text. The exhibit is artfully designed and features a variety of interactive elements that invite the viewer to click frequently to discover more. The website also incorporates some best practices in accessibility by featuring the option to navigate the exhibit by using a mouse, voice commands, or keyboard arrows. However, the reviewer noted that voice control navigation offered inconsistent results; while the available voice control menu is thoughtful, not all commands produce the actions a user might expect.
A distinctive red menu button placed at the bottom of the page offers an easy route to the specific elements of the exhibit. The menu offers alternative access points to the collection, presenting the essays arranged by era, and images, maps, or tables exclusively without the essays. The over 500 images presented include photographs, documents, maps, manuscripts, and pages from rare books sourced from a variety of divisions of the NYPL, including Schomburg Center Collections, as well as other divisions such as the New York Public Library Digital Collections, the Manuscripts, and Archives Division, The Art and Picture collection, and the Map Division. Each image includes a description and source citation. Printable versions of images can also be downloaded in jpg format. The search tool on the menu list allows the user to type in a search term. The results of these searches, however, are confusing and inconsistent. Finally, the “Resources” section of the exhibit menu is not a list of references but a portal to two other digital NYPL collections, “Negroes of New York” and The Negro World, the official newspaper of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. The first resource, “Negroes of New York,” includes forty-one biographical sketches commissioned by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) from 1936-1941 featuring the research and writing of New York-based writers including Abram Hill the co-founder of the American Negro Theatre, Ted Poston, a longtime editor of the Amsterdam News, journalist Arnold De Mille, author Ralph Ellison, and activist Odette Harper (Hines). The sketches are presented as a collection of digital scans of the submitted typewritten documents and forms used by the WPA writers. The second linked resource connects users to to digital images of The Negro World which was headquartered in Harlem in the early 20th century.
This exhibit would be useful as an introduction to black New York for middle school through college students, or for anyone in general interested in New York City’s history. The site can also function as a document and manuscript source for researchers. Overall, the format and functionality are engaging. The rich content presented and the inviting format of the website outweigh the navigation and search function issues. Black New Yorkers is a commendable contribution to the Lapidus Center’s collection of online exhibits, and one that certainly fulfills the center’s quest to highlight the NYPL’s collections and illuminate African American history and culture in inventive ways.