REFERENCE SOURCES SPOTLIGHT: Umbra Search African American History

Archival materials of African American history and music-making are often hidden within collections that do not make the existence of these materials apparent, which complicates archival research that much more. In 2012, the University of Minnesota, in collaboration with Penumbra Theatre Company, set out to address this issue by focusing on the needs of unique needs of theater and performing arts archives. The project quickly expanded to include all cultural materials related to the African American community and resulted in Umbra Search. A powerful search tool that collates digitally available materials from over 1,000 libraries and archives across the United States, Umbra Search provides centralized access to primary source material pertaining to African American culture and history. The site is a springboard for users to connect to many different collections that house African American materials, especially if the users are unsure where to look. Umbra Search points users to materials ranging from concert and theater programs to audio interviews to photographs to videos and more. These are useful not only for individual research projects, but for enhancing classroom instruction with primary source materials.

From the site’s homepage, users can enter simple or operator (using + or -) searches in the main search box. In the results list, users can filter using the left-hand navigation bar and adjust their view at the top. When choosing an individual item, users can click on the title to see a preview of the item on the Umbra Search site. The preview will display rights information link to related collections in Umbra Search. Users can click the orange “View” button to be taken directly to the contributing institution’s page. Permission and access to download or reproduce are based on the contributing institutions, but once users navigate to that institution’s site, they can find more contact information and related materials.

Not only is Umbra Search a great tool for researchers, but it is also an opportunity for cultural institutions to showcase their collections. Institutions can contact Umbra Search any time to connect their resources to the site, creating another access point for researchers. In addition, Umbra Search has free code to embed their search widget in your institution’s website which can even specifically highlight the materials that your institution has contributed. Consider employing and promoting this wonderful (and free!) resource at your institution.

Elizabeth Uchimura
Music Digital Services and Special Collections Librarian
Florida State University