Minding the Gap

Jane Kamensky with Kenvi Phillips. Photo by Tony RinaldoJane Kamensky with Kenvi Phillips. Photo by Tony Rinaldo
By Jane Kamensky, Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director Professor, Department of History, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

At the Schlesinger Library, one of our priorities is to mind the gap—to quote the London tube announcers—between the long-hidden history of women and the more visible history of men, and also between materials that our archive holds and subjects that remain under-represented. Although ours is the nation’s leading special collections library documenting the history of women and gender in America, it contains a preponderance of materials about white middle and upper-class women, many of them engaged with liberal causes. The history of politically conservative women and grassroots conservative organizations is not sufficiently documented at the Schlesinger, and we have been working hard to correct this disparity—among many others—to ensure that students, researchers, and scholars have the materials they need to write nuanced histories of our time.

Imagine, for example, if the writers featured on "Writing from the Library" had not had access to the Schlesinger’s archives. Would they have been able to discover the important story of the struggle for coeducation in America, the life of a black woman writer in the post–civil rights era, and the portrait of a conservative intellectual as television talk show host? My colleagues and I think about the primary sources historians in the future will need in order to tell complex, multisided stories, and it fuels our desire to increase the breadth and depth of our collections.

Our commitment to building a more inclusive archive is also evident in our hiring of a new colleague, Kenvi Phillips, the library’s inaugural curator for race and ethnicity. Kenvi’s arrival completes a superb curatorial team at the Schlesinger, where she joins Kathy Jacob, the Johanna-Maria Fraenkel Curator of Manuscripts, and Marylène Altieri, curator of books and printed materials. Like Kathy and Marylène, Kenvi will help the directors (Marilyn Dunn and me) plan and implement future directions in our collections building. All three of these senior staff leaders will do the core curatorial work of responding to queries from donors and dealers, assessing the significance and feasibility of potential acquisitions, and helping those who are in the process of transferring materials to the library sort and winnow their books and papers with an eye toward future research value.

But Kenvi’s work will be somewhat different from Kathy’s and Marylène’s. Focused on documenting the intersections of gender, race, class, and ethnicity in American history, she will work with all types of materials, including manuscript and print documents. Her efforts will also center substantially on outreach through personal visits, public programming, and exhibitions.

An accomplished historian, Kenvi holds a master’s in public history and a doctorate in US history from Howard University. Before coming to the Schlesinger, she worked at the Mary McLeod Bethune House in Washington and the Maryland–National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Most recently, she was assistant curator for manuscripts and librarian for prints and photographs at Howard’s highly regarded Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.

In the course of her career, Kenvi has honed both her skills and her extraordinary intellectual generosity. She has taught and written, planned programs for audiences ranging from schoolchildren to senior citzens, mounted exhibitions, and even staged monthly recitals where middle-school students performed in historic one-room schoolhouses. I can’t wait to see the kinds of fresh thinking and new relationships that Kenvi will bring to the Schlesinger and to the Radcliffe and Harvard campuses.

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