Staff transition at Center for Black Music Research a ‘slap in the face’

By Blaise Mesa, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Some fear staffing changes at the college may represent a threat to the prominence of the Center for Black Music Research and one of the most expansive collections of black music in the world.

Two employees who were listed specifically as Center staffers in the Columbia directory were terminated on May 22 when their positions were eliminated, and a research fellow and reference librarian who spent about half of her work time at the Center resigned on June 12.

Laurie Lee Moses worked as a Center archivist until the college’s most recent string of terminations and said there were 12 people when she started in 2009.

“People of African descent are left out, erased and disappear all over the place,” Moses said. “The importance is magnified even more so, to the extent that honoring what people of African descent have brought to the world is at risk.”

On her last day, Moses offered to help ease the transition by writing out guides to the collection and cataloging what work was yet to be done at the Center to then-Interim Provost Suzanne Blum Malley. Moses said even though she used an extra vacation day to finish this project, there was still more work she hoped to do.

Moses said her favorite part of working at the Center was the “cultural crossroads” she would observe. She had even seen people from Japan and Germany stop by.

“As you take people through the place … their eyes get bigger and bigger,” she said. “[Considering] the whole world of what is out there and what people of African descent [have] contributed, the earth shifted a little.” Moses had even seen someone nearly moved to tears.

Monica Hairston O’Connell was the executive director of the Center from September 2007 until August 2015. During her tenure, she said her job gradually shifted from growing the Center to trying to retain resources.

“[We were] basically arguing for our right to exist,” she said.

O’Connell said the administration had shifting priorities and has “failed to understand the specialness of the collection.”

The Center has an expansive collection with music ranging from hip-hop to classical, which includes archived materials such as personal papers, interviews and photographs among other things, according to Assistant Vice President of Strategic Communications and External Relations Lambrini Lukidis.

“This total collection count also includes material produced by CBMR from its own programs, publications and projects,” she said.

The college will keep the Center staffed with library archivists, who will assist researchers and keep it operational. Lukidis said archival librarians will not necessarily have a background in black music, but they typically have master’s degrees in archival studies. She said “content knowledge can be developed over time.”

O’Connell said the collection has material from across the globe and is not easy to learn quickly.

“There is not really a way that someone with … [an] archival librarian master’s can learn quickly how to make connections between different documents and materials in this collection without having some kind of training and understanding,” O’Connell said. “It is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.”

Moses said prior to her termination she was still learning about the collection, even after working at the Center for nearly a decade.

The Center became designated as a special collection in the college’s library in 2016, according to Lukidis, who said it has not had staff solely dedicated specifically to the Center since that time. However, the college website made special mention of Moses’ and Janet Harper’s CBMR specialization in their titles on the library page of the Columbia College Chicago directory. Both were recently terminated.

But O’Connell said it is important the Center not be seen as a special collection “buried” within a library.

“We will spend the coming year and beyond thinking through how we can best leverage this uniquely rich collection, and what resources will be required to highlight its value to our students and to scholars of the music of the African Diaspora,” said President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim in a May 22 email sent to faculty and staff.

Researchers can now schedule appointments with the library’s archivists to help navigate the collection.

However, as of press time, the Center has no available sign-up dates for researchers after mid-September with none available in August, according to its website. It will offer appointments in July on Mondays and Wednesdays, as well as Mondays and Wednesdays during the first half of September.

During her time at the Center, Moses said anyone could come in at any time for research; appointments could be made but were not necessary.

When a Chronicle reporter and photographer went to the Center July 9, a Tuesday, at 10 a.m., nobody answered the door. Calls, emails and social media messages to the Center’s general contact line were not responded to as of press time.

“It’s absolutely tragic … to not have a dedicated staff member with the knowledge of the field … working in the world’s most important black music research library,” said Rachel Barton Pine, a concert violinist. “[It is] a slap in the face.”

Pine began researching at the Center in the late 1990s while she was compiling an album of black violinists titled “Violin Concertos by Black Composers of the 18th and 19th Centuries.” She said the album exposed people to musicians and composers they may not have heard of before.

The album became so popular Pine received requests from students, parents and teachers asking her where they could find similar music.

Pine said she could not have done the project without the help of the Center.

Pine is pleased the Center will remain open, and said dwindling staff is not a new issue. But she recalls times when the Center hosted international conferences, where people from all over the world would share lectures, ideas and projects.

“There is no centralized place [for black music], and CBMR was it,” Pine said. “It’s not just about Columbia; it’s not just about Chicago; it’s about something that existed in the world but now doesn’t.”

Columbia “shuttered [the Center] up for all intents and purposes,” Pine said.

“I don’t believe there is a similar resource in the country,” said Afa Dworkin, president and artistic director for The Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based group dedicated to transforming lives through diversity in the arts.

Dworkin spent hours researching classical music at the Center during the early 2000s and attributes the “vast majority” of what she learned to that experience. She said there was little information available on minority composers elsewhere.

Dworkin does not recall the exact number of staffers she worked with in the early 2000s, but echoed Pine’s sentiments, and said if only one person worked at the Center it would have been “essentially impossible” for her complete her research.

Michael Williams is a jazz enthusiast who never formally researched at the Center, but heard of it due to its prominence. Williams also wanted to see how the Center could help him with theological research.

“If you didn’t take advantage of that you are going to miss something,” Williams said. “Hopefully … it’ll be ongoing, and it’ll basically be an educational piece that will do research in terms … of how this generation is going to handle the great gift of music they’ve been given.”

O’Connell is hopeful library leadership can restore the Center to past prominence, but does not know how they will do so.

“Downsizing yourself out of existence [and] relevance is not the way to go,” Pine said. “It feels like they are making a big mistake, which is going to be to the detriment of the music world as a whole.”