Interview with Zakiya Collier, Schomburg’s Digital Archivist

By Allison Hughes, Librarian II
September 16, 2021
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

This blog post is part of the #SchomburgSyllabus series edited by Zakiya Collier, Digital Archivist, Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division. The #SchomburgSyllabus project archives Black-authored and Black-related online educational resources to document Black studies, movements, and experiences in the twenty-first century. In connecting these web-archived resources to the Schomburg Center’s own unique materials, the project honors and recognizes the source and strength of Black self-education practices, collective study, and librarianship.The #SchomburgSyllabus is curated by Schomburg Center staff and organized into twenty-seven themes to foster a greater understanding of the Black experience.

Zakiya Collier Headshot

Zakiya Collier is the first-ever Digital Archivist at the Schomburg Center. She was hired in August 2019 to develop Schomburg’s web-archiving program as part of a two-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Building on a pilot project started by Makiba Foster, the former assistant chief librarian in the Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, Zakiya curates and maintains collections of websites, online audio and video, blogs, and other born-digital media. Each collection is focused on a different topic relating to Black life and culture—including Black artists, Black politicians, and, in response to current events, the African diasporic experiences of COVID-19. Zakiya’s work is particularly focused on developing the #SchomburgSyllabus—an effort to document the #hashtag movement with a collection of public and often crowdsourced online syllabi and reading lists. 

How did Schomburg’s web archiving program get started?

It began when former Assistant Chief Librarian Makiba Foster started noticing people creating and sharing reading lists and syllabi on social media in response to current events—the Ferguson Syllabus, for example, created by Georgetown history professor Marcia Chatelain in response to the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests, or the Lemonade Syllabus, developed by Candice Benbow to provide context for the Black feminist themes explored in Beyoncé’s 2016 album.

In 2017, Makiba got a grant from the Community Webs program, which was created by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the Internet Archive to help public libraries get into web archiving. She used this grant to create a digital collection of these online syllabi, as well as other collections of websites relating to topics she thought were relevant to the Schomburg Center, Harlem, or Black people more broadly.

[Former Schomburg director] Kevin Young was especially inspired by the syllabus collection, and he wrote a proposal to expand it and use it as the basis of a larger program of education and outreach, connecting the Schomburg Center’s history with modern social justice movements. That’s the project I was hired to do.

How do you see your work in the broader context of the Schomburg Center’s mission?

It’s really a continuation of the work Schomburg librarians have done for nearly a century, chronicling history as it’s happening. There’s a connection, for example, with the Schomburg Center scrapbooks, which librarians at Schomburg created from the 1920s through the 1960s, using newspaper clippings to document Harlem and other topics relevant to the community in real time. Similarly, when the Covid-19 pandemic started, even though the library’s physical space closed, I was able to respond by starting a collection of websites, blogs, and social media documenting the effect of Covid on Black communities—gathering information on health disparities and the impact on Black-owned businesses in a rapidly changing situation. It’s very active work, trying to represent the current moment as accurately as possible.

How do you decide what sites to archive?

When I started expanding the syllabus collection, I really thought hard about what its scope should be. I’m looking for things that speak to a specific moment, that contextualize a particular event or issue related to the African diaspora, and that are addressing a gap in existing resources. It’s important to me that what I include is for public consumption: I made the decision not to include syllabi from university websites, for example. But anything that’s shared on social media or a personal website is eligible, because that’s embracing the concept of bringing resources that are typically reserved for the classroom to the public and making them accessible.

Can you walk me through the basics of how web archiving works? Once you’ve identified a relevant website, what steps do you take to add it to a collection?

I use a tool called Archive-It, which is a web-archiving service created by the Internet Archive and used by many libraries and cultural heritage institutions. Each of our collections on Archive-It is made up of multiple "seeds," which can be anything with a URL—entire websites, blogs, Google docs, Tweets. Once you add a seed to a collection, you can select how often you want Archive-It to "crawl" it and create an archived version. For most of the syllabus collection, it’s a one-time thing, but for something like the COVID collection, which has sites with charts and data that are updated regularly, I might crawl them weekly or monthly to make sure we continue to capture information as it changes. After the site is crawled, I’ll do quality assurance and make sure all the links and tabs work correctly before I save it. Once it’s saved, it's preserved on Archive-It, and even if the original site changes or gets taken down, the archived version will remain.

How do you see researchers using these collections? How will they be made accessible?

The collections are accessible now through the Schomburg Web Archives page, and researchers are already starting to use them. Last year, I did a workshop with the Schomburg-Mellon Humanities Summer Fellows, walking them through the web archives and how they could use them for their projects. One of the students was doing work on the Soviet Union, and they found the #BlackOctober Reading List, a site in the syllabus collection about the Russian revolution and the African diaspora, which led them to all these primary and secondary sources. I’m also working with the Education Department, thinking about how teachers and students might engage with this project and how best to make it accessible to them—for example, making sure that some of these syllabi are appropriate for K–12 students. In February, I actually did a Doc Chat episode with Dr. Yarimar Bonilla discussing ways that educators and students might use the #PuertoRicoSyllabus.

Ultimately, we want to create a webpage that will make the web archive collections more easily usable and searchable by author or subject. With the #SchomburgSyllabus initiative, I’m working with staff across Schomburg divisions to place the syllabus collection in the context of the larger scope of Black Studies, with scholarly and research engagement, as well as with Schomburg’s existing physical collections. This project is part of a long legacy of cultural events and literary circles within African American communities that people use to help each other conceptualize their current moment, and we want to continue that tradition.

What has been your personal experience of working on this project? What have you learned or been surprised by?

It’s been exciting. Web archiving is fairly new, both at the New York Public Library and within the world of Black-collecting institutions, and it’s very empowering to be a part of such a groundbreaking project. Of course, plenty of challenges come with the territory—I’ve had to learn a lot about the technical nuances of different websites by troubleshooting when things go wrong.

When I started out looking for content to add to the syllabus collection, I didn’t have any expectations going in about what I’d find, but I’ve been surprised by just how many resources are out there, responding to specific topics and moments in specific communities. The movement has really taken off, it feels like there’s a syllabus for everything.