A national group of archivists is urging Hollins University to immediately restore its full online collection of old campus yearbooks.
The appeal, issued Wednesday, comes one day after the university announced that it was temporarily pulling four annals from its digital archives after an internal review found instances of blackface and other offensive imagery.
University President Pareena Lawrence, in announcing her decision, said the books would be reposted once the school is able to add more information shedding light on the history of blackface and its racist legacy.
She anticipated that would happen within a few weeks but didn’t set a hard deadline.
Blackface photos in yearbooks have been part of a wave of scandals that engulfed state politics this year. Lawrence referenced those events Tuesday in explaining the university’s decision to launch an internal review of its annals.
Hollins isn’t the only college or university grappling with its past. Many schools have formed initiatives, similar to that of Hollins, to research and acknowledge their connections to slavery and racism. Virginia Tech is one of them and acknowledged Wednesday that it is working to address racist images in its old yearbooks as well, though no editions would be removed from Tech’s digital archives.
Changing part of the online historical catalog at Hollins, even temporarily, is proving to be unsettling for archivists and preservationists both outside and inside of the private, Roanoke County campus.
In a separate letter released Wednesday, Hollins’ library staff and its in-house working group on slavery also came out in support of swiftly reinstating the yearbooks.
That letter, signed by 16 staffers and two student members of the work group, said they shared the administration’s goal of working to present a fuller historical picture of blackface to learn from.
But it also raised concerns about erasing, even short-term, a piece of the institution’s historical record.
The archives are meant to preserve and share the university’s past, it said. “This includes both the parts of that history we are proud of, such as the long-standing focus on women’s education, and the parts we are not, which include such abhorrent acts as blackface.”
In another statement, the Society of American Archivists called on the university to reconsider its approach.
That group, which is the nation’s largest professional association for archivists, said its ethical standards underscore the importance of ensuring that archival records are authentic and unaltered.
Temporarily removing even offensive material such as that cited here is a de facto alteration of that record, it said.
“Archives serve as a source of accountability for individuals and institutions in positions of power.”
“Impeding access to archival materials that were produced by the institution and that serve to demonstrate the institution’s beliefs and norms at the time of production denies the ability to hold the institution accountable for these actions and choices.”
Hollins disagreed with the society’s assessment that it was altering the record and reiterated that its intent was not to hide from its past. Instead, it said, it was furthering its mission to educate and expand the understanding of difficult parts of that past.
“The images in a select number of yearbooks are hurtful and before allowing them to be online without any context, we are creating educational materials outlining why certain actions are insulting and denigrating,” read a response provided by spokesman Jeff Hodges.
“Helping to increase understanding of why blackface and other practices are racist must go hand-in-hand with acknowledging racism itself.”
Hard copies of the yearbooks are still available in the library and the university alumnae house.
Copies of a campuswide message that Lawrence put out Tuesday are being added to each edition at those locations.
The message condemns the use of racist imagery and explains her decision. Hollins confirmed Wednesday that four editions of the yearbook had been pulled online: 1915, 1950, 1969 and 1985.
Meanwhile, in Blacksburg, a spokesman for Virginia Tech said Wednesday the school was reckoning with troubling images and information found in archives of its Bugle yearbook, published since 1895 except for a three-year gap during World War II. Blackface was common in the yearbook pages at one point. Minstrel shows were an annual tradition on campus into the 1960s.
The school is making plans to add a statement to its yearbook archives denouncing racist images and offering its support for impacted groups, said Tech’s Mark Owczarski.
A timeline for finishing that statement hasn’t been set yet. The goal of the addition will be to affirm the campus’s principles without compromising the underlying historic document, Owczarski said.
No yearbooks will be removed from Tech’s digital archives.
In their letter, Hollins’s library staff and its working group on slavery suggested their online yearbooks could be reposted with a statement condemning the offensive images and outlining their plans to develop more educational materials.
The statement, it said, could read in part that the university is committed to not hiding from its history. “It is from this commitment to acknowledging and learning from painful, uncomfortable, and repugnant moments that we make all archival materials available.”
Lawrence said she deeply respected the staff and working group members. But the administration reiterated her original message asking for the community’s understanding and support as they navigate these issues.