Newly digitized Marian Anderson collection now accessible online

Penn Libraries has completed digitization of more than 2,500 items from its Marian Anderson collection, now available for public view on a new website.

Portrait of Marian Anderson in 1920 in formal wear with her chin resting on her hand.
Marian Anderson ca. 1920. (Image: Penn Libraries collection)

The University of Pennsylvania Libraries has completed the digitization of more than 2,500 items from the collection of Marian Anderson, one of the most celebrated singers of the 20th century. The body of primary sources in the collection—including letters, diaries, journals, interviews, recital programs, and private recordings—spans the Philadelphia-born contralto’s six-decade career as a concert singer and advocate for social justice.

The digitization project was funded in 2018 by a $110,000 grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources. The newly digitized materials complement a significant collection of 4,000 photographs, which are also publicly accessible.

“Marian Anderson achieved worldwide renown as a singer while breaking racial barriers in the United States, and the Penn Libraries is honored to serve as custodian of her archival legacy,” says Constantia Constantinou, H. Carton Rogers III Vice Provost and Director of the Penn Libraries. “Through Anderson’s digitized collection, scholars and students worldwide can discover and reflect on her life and career and further illuminate her social, cultural, and historical impact.”

Marian Anderson (1897–1993) was born and raised in Philadelphia, with close ties to the community. Best known as an interpreter of art songs and spirituals, Anderson performed in diverse venues throughout her career, from schools and community centers to formal concert stages. 

A world-renowned recitalist, Anderson was also a high-profile figure in the fight for Civil Rights. After having been denied permission by the Daughters of the American Revolution to perform for an integrated audience in Constitution Hall, Anderson famously performed an open-air concert for 75,000 people on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Additionally, in 1955, she was the first Black singer to perform in a lead role on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.

Anderson officially retired from the stage in 1965. Anderson’s life and career continues to be celebrated and studied by a diverse group of learners from schoolchildren to musicologists and social historians. To facilitate the work of teachers, students, and researchers, the Penn Libraries created a research portal, Discovering Marian Anderson, that offers resources for study at all levels. 

“The release of this portal will allow researchers to not only freely access digital materials online, but will also ensure Marian Anderson’s story can be explored within the greater context of four hundred years of African American history,” notes David McKnight, director of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. For example, the newly digitized content will be disseminated through University of Minnesota’s Umbra Search African American History, which links almost 800,000 digital items from more than 1,000 archival resources.

April James, reader services librarian at the Penn Libraries’ Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, has introduced students to Marian Anderson’s work both at the college and elementary levels. “This study portal will make it easier to access her legacy than ever before,” says James. “I hope students gain a newfound respect for the challenging realities of Marian Anderson’s career. Like countless other Black artists and writers of her time, she negotiated segregation at home and freedom abroad. Music allowed her to transcend these barriers and help her audiences see the possibility of a more inclusive future.”

The website simplifies the discovery of the digital content through finding aids and browsable listings of scrapbooks, notebooks, diaries, photographs, interviews, and recordings.

The completed digitization work has already enabled further exploration of Anderson’s daily life and reflections as a concert singer: Penn Libraries staff have transcribed more than 1,500 pages of her handwritten diaries, notebooks, and letters, so that users will be able to search them by keyword.

“I rightly anticipated that I would find a lot about her domestic and international travels, since she performed around the world,” says Andrea Nuñez, who has been working to transcribe Anderson’s journals, “but I was surprised to also learn that she worked as a State Department Goodwill Ambassador and delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. I imagine that the transcribed journals highlighting her governmental work will open up further opportunities to understand the significance of her role during a tumultuous time in history.”

The Marian Anderson collection is housed in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, and is jointly curated by the Libraries’ Curator of Manuscripts and Music Librarian. The collection includes Anderson’s personal archives, which she donated to the University of Pennsylvania Libraries before her death in 1993, and additional donations from her nephew, James DePreist, and the Free Library of Philadelphia. 

This story comes from Penn Libraries News.