Librarians and archivists often approach collections of donated ephemera with assumptions about their contents and organization. Once processing starts, however, the collection demands we rethink our initial assumptions. Upon its arrival at the NGA Library in 2015, the Evans-Tibbs Collection posed many challenges: chief among them was determining how best to describe the collection to facilitate access.
During his lifetime, Thurlow Evans Tibbs Jr., an accomplished art appraiser, broker, collector, and dealer, as well as the founder and director of his eponymous art gallery, compiled approximately forty-five linear feet of material documenting the history of African American art and artists from 1810 to 1998. The Evans-Tibbs Collection has accurately been referred to as an archive—and indeed, it includes personal correspondence, insurance appraisals, and other gallery records. But it also contains clippings, photographs, slides, posters, pamphlets and other ephemera organized by artist name—artist files! Over the past three years, the librarians at the NGA have grappled with how to meaningfully arrange and describe Tibbs’ important legacy.
The first phase of processing the collection began in 1996 when Tibbs bequeathed the collection along with thirty-three works of art to the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Regarded as a collection with archival significance, materials were housed in original order, and a list of the artist files was also created. When the collection arrived at the NGA, we immediately uploaded these lists to our OPAC, creating searchable file-level records. I also created a finding aid, a collection level document that describes the depth and breadth of this unique collection.
We were amazed and excited to eventually read the deed of gift signed by Tibbs and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which refers to the collection as both an archive and a research library. The primary source documents in the collection are to be preserved, while also allowing them to grow. The hybrid arrangement we created—a mix of file-level and collection-level records—which, though unorthodox, adds a certain mystique to the materials and seems to reflect Tibbs’ original intent. Most importantly, the intellectual and cultural value of the materials remains unchanged.
Learn more about the National Gallery of Art Library vertical file collections.