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Yearbooks have become a reputational risk for universities with a history of institutionalized racism, but that’s no reason to throw them away.

On Tuesday, a librarian at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia received a request from school administrators to temporarily remove access to certain yearbooks in the digital archives that contained blackface and other racist imagery. Reluctant to even momentarily erase evidence of racial injustice, librarian Taylor Kenkel refused to comply with their boss’s request. According to the librarian who posted about the controversy on Twitter, the all-women school’s yearbook, called the Spinster, contained offensive photographs and cartoons throughout its 115 years of publication from 1898 to 2013. Nevertheless, Kenkel was later overruled by the university’s president, Pareena G. Lawrence.

“Regardless of the year and time, the intent, or the context, these materials are hurtful and disturbing, and they do not embody the values of our community,” Lawrence said in a statement on Tuesday. “In an effort to limit the damage and pain those depictions might cause in our community, I have decided that for the time being, we will not exhibit the entire collection of the Spinster digitally.”

Despite what good intentions the school’s president may have had, backlash has been fierce at the 167-year-old institution. The university’s Working Group on Slavery and Its Contemporary Legacies issued a joint declaration with the Wyndham Robertson Library that strongly objected to Lawrence’s decision. “While we support President Lawrence’s goals of sharing educational information about the history and practice of blackface, learning from this history, and evolving as an institution and society, we cannot and do not support any erasure of institutional history, even if only temporarily.”

More recently, students have launched their own letter of protest opposing the university’s actions. At the time of this article’s publication, 175 people have signed onto the statement.

In recent months, multiple universities have scoured their archives for evidence of blackface and racist imagery after a photograph surfaced from Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook featuring two men, one in blackface and the other wearing a Ku Klux Klan costume.

Image of blackface from Hollins University’s 1915 edition of the Spinster (via Wikimedia Commons)

Lawrence has told the Chronicle of Higher Education that she approached the university’s library director and others after February’s Northam scandal to review Hollins’ yearbooks for racist imagery. Some, including Spinster editions from 1915, 1950, 1969, and 1985, did include racist depictions. She told the publication that she had plans to quietly contextualize the yearbooks after an initial removal. But that strategy dematerialized after Kenkel took to Twitter to address her concerns.

“Archival materials, records, they represent a record of our history, and when you remove materials, you censor them,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, interim director of the American Library Association’s intellectual freedom office, told the Washington Post. “Erasing history solves no problems and simply hides the past from us, so that we can’t learn from it … so that we can’t remedy any harms from the past.”

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...