Penn Libraries put Marian Anderson back on the world stage

There are 525 boxes that contain the personal diaries, programs, and scrapbooks of the world-renowned singer Marian Anderson, all bequeathed to Penn. Most of the cartons are in a storage facility in New Jersey, but they will soon be on their way back to campus.

A new grant will allow the Penn Libraries to digitize portions of the collection, making the personal papers of the Philadelphia-born contralto available to the public. Also included will be recordings of personal interviews and home studio performances.

“This will enable scholars and students who are interested in Marian Anderson to have access to materials that no one really has had access to,” says David McKnight, director of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.

The newly digitized items will be hosted on OPenn, the Penn Libraries’ platform for openly published and digitized cultural heritage materials. The digitization will start in June and be completed by May 2019, conducted by the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text & Image, McKnight says. An estimated 5,000 individual items will be included in the project.

The collection to be digitized, spanning most of Anderson’s life as a singer and social justice advocate, has 1,200 recital and performance programs, 146 notebooks and diaries, 34 scrapbooks, 34 interview transcriptions, and 277 hours of recordings.

The grant is through the innovative program “Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives: Enabling New Scholarship through Increasing Access to Unique Materials,” supported by the Council on Library and Information Resources and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Born in Philadelphia in 1897, Anderson was one of the most celebrated singers of the 20th century, with an international performance career that spanned nearly 50 years. In April 1939, she gave an iconic, open-air performance at the Lincoln Memorial after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her sing in Constitution Hall because she was black.

“Marian Anderson was truly an artist on the world stage,” says Liza Vick, head of Otto E. Albrecht Music Library & Eugene Ormandy Music & Media Center at the Penn Libraries. “Materials digitized under this grant will make documentation of her groundbreaking career available to a wider audience and will enhance scholarship in African-American music at a critical juncture.”

With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Penn Libraries in 1996 created a finding aid, or guide, to the archival collection. Although most intellectual property rights were transferred to Penn, many commercial recordings and printed materials are still protected by U.S. copyright law, and the librarians must be careful about what they make available through this new project grant, McKnight says.

McKnight, Vick, and Richard Griscom, associate University librarian for collections & liaison services, are the principal investigators on the grant.

The diaries will be of great interest, McKnight speculates, because they detail her thoughts during tours throughout the United States and Europe. Anderson often suffered racial injustices, but was not outspoken about her personal views, and researchers hope to get a deeper insight into her experiences, Vick says.

“The diaries represent her interior world, and the scrapbooks and programs will represent the external world of her career,” McKnight says.

The scrapbooks were made annually by her management agency, with photographs, letters, testimonials, and newspaper clippings.

“These really have not been viewed by the public before,” McKnight says.

The programs will be of particular interest, too, he says, and provide geographical information about where Anderson performed, the scope of her performances, and the repertoire.

The sound recordings have not been widely available to researchers, as they are on fragile cassette and reel-to-reel tapes, Vick says.

“They are unique materials, not commercial recordings,” she says. The cassette tape recordings are the oral interviews for her autobiography “My Lord, What a Morning.”

The more than 4,000 photographs in the Marian Anderson collection were digitized through a previous grant and are available on the Libraries’ website.

Anderson made her first donation of materials to Penn in 1977, and she continued depositing materials until her death in 1993 at the age of 96. Her decision was made in consultation with her nephew, the conductor James DePreist, who earned his undergraduate degree from the Wharton School, and his master’s degree from the Annenberg School for Communication.

The Libraries and the Music Department are planning a Marian Anderson symposium at Penn in October that will celebrate her life’s work with scholarly panels and performances.

An exhibit of selected photographs, programs, correspondence, and other materials from her international performances is on display just outside the Marian Anderson Study Center of the Music Library. 

Marian Anderson