On Sale, or Johnson Publishing Company Sells Its Archive

I woke up this morning to find myself tagged in a Facebook post leading to this great imploration published by Awesomely Luvvie. In short, the Johnson Publishing Company (JPC) is selling 5 million photographs highlighting and detailing the breadth and wealth of African-American history for $40 million dollars. Not licencing the collection, but selling it outright. For $8 a pic.

My immediate reaction was, of course, no one listens to the archivist. Then I thought they probably didn’t have an archivist. If there is or was a full time archivist on staff, s/he has an almost invisible online footprint. Instead, I came across JPC’s testimonial for Armstrong-Johnson’s outsourced archival services. Suspicions confirmed: They did not have an archivist. This is what Armstrong-Johnson’s staff did for JPC:
In collaboration with JPC’s Chairperson and CEO, Armstrong-Johnston created retention standards, which enabled smart “weeding” of non-JPC owned reference materials from the Archive. In the processing of rehousing the collection into archivally safe enclosures, Armstrong-Johnston improved and enhanced Series-level arrangement, and captured standard data sets describing the collection to the box and folder level. The inventory includes folder headings, publication dates, photographer attributions, and cross-references for 150,000+ folders/boxes of photographic materials.
After the inventory, JPC monetized the collection and put a selection of 2,000 photographic prints (not the actual photos, but prints in a variety of forms) up for sale to the public — starting at $35 each. If those 2,000 photos, made available through Art.com, are valued at a starting price of $35, then the remaining 4 million-plus in the current sale have to be worth somewhere in that ballpark, right? Even if they’re a third of the price, that’s $11.66 per photo. I stand with Awesomely Luvvie; JPC is selling its collection short. $58,600,000 is larger than $40,000,000, but both numbers seem too low a price to pay for a cultural heritage resource.Awesomely Luvvie wrote that in a town like Chicago — home of numerous libraries, universities, and museums who’d chomp at the bit for, and undoubtedly get grants up the wazoo to fund, this collection — JPC could surely find other options. I’m going to add to the pile and recommend the Society of American Archivists, also based in Chicago. Johnson Publishing Company, there are archivists among you. They are literally an eight minute walk from you. Just go for a walk, grab some coffee, and chat with an archivist.

Why is an archivist important in matters like this? Why would anyone want to consult with an archivist? Because it’s not just a matter of a family company looking to invest in infrastructure by off-loading existing assets to raise capital. It’s the selling of cultural history to those who might not respect that history. Period. Archivists are trained to look past the economic value of a record to focus on the value of the history in, around, or described by the record. We understand intellectual property rights and can be of assistance in brokering deals that would allow an institution to license its content while retaining the rights to it (Getty Images, anyone?). We do this not to generate funds but to perpetuate and publicize cultural histories that would otherwise be lost to time. And if the parent repository can’t do it; we can find another that will and will do so because it shares the same dedication to that cultural history. JPC’s photo archive is dedicated to illuminating African-American life from 1942 onwards and, if deaccessed, should go to an institution that shares its values and mission, and has the ability to maintain it. Being a NYC gal, the Schomberg Center is the first to come to mind, but I think the collection would be more at home in Chicago. Fortunately, the DuSable Museum of African American History is a short drive down the road.

It’s got a curatorial staff and if their museum lacks the resources for it, they’d be able to recommend an institution that can support it [cough]The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture[cough] and is actively seeking donations.


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