Chicagoan Tamar Evangelestia-Dougherty won’t let her 312 phone number go. She’s had it since 2006.
“I’m not losing my number,” said the native West Sider. “I love my Chicago area code.”
Evangelestia-Dougherty hasn’t been back to Chicago since before the pandemic. She’s been living in Washington, D.C., given her new role as the inaugural director of the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives. She’s been in the position since Dec. 2021, responsible for nearly 3 million library volumes and more than 44,000 cubic feet of archival materials chronicling the history of the Smithsonian. She oversees 21 library branches and reading rooms in Washington, D.C., New York City, Maryland, Virginia and the Republic of Panama.
“This job is a dream come true for me,” she said. With family members in the military and in the federal employ as postal workers, she sees her new job as a neat way for her to finally serve her country. “I’m feeling kind of patriotic there,” she said. “The ability to work with wonderful people like Secretary Lonnie Bunch, Undersecretary for Science and Research Ellen Stofan, Melanie Adams, the director of the Anacostia Community Museum, Anthea Hartig, director of the National Museum of American History and Ngaire Blakenberg, director at the National Museum of African Art is amazing — a lot of great talent, a lot of people who want to make history come alive, bring together artifacts to present them to the public in a way that is ethical. And they do so with a lot of cultural intelligence … it’s such a privilege to be in the company of all of these people, dedicated to raising the national profile of history and culture.”
We talked with Evangelestia-Dougherty, (a Von Steuben High School alumna) and former executive director of University of Chicago’s Black Metropolis Research Consortium about her plans for her directorship, and how they speak to the little girl she was in Chicago. The interview has been condensed and edited.
Q: What does your job entail? What’s the most surprising thing about it?
A: I’m the chief administrator for Smithsonian Libraries and Archives. I have a library executive leadership team; my administration falls over the 21 branches of the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives, which I’m really pleased to say is the largest museum library system in the world. I have one institutional archive. If you look at the Smithsonian Archives Twitter, you’re gonna see amazing stories about women and people of color who triumphed in the Smithsonian system. There’s a lot of great stories in our institutional archives. The most surprising thing? All those narratives in the Smithsonian Archives.
Q: You’ve been strengthening collections/digital initiatives/archives related to the Black diaspora across the country, including serving as director of collections and services at New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Share more about that experience.
A: I believe that records when researched in the context of the city that they were created in, it makes all kinds of connections to other materials held at other archives such as the Chicago History Museum, Chicago Public Library. There were a lot of great archival collections leaving Chicago in 2007 and we had to address that. It’s about the legacy remaining in the communities in which they were created and where that collective memory can crystalize. When I have been in curatorial positions, on based on ethical principles of community outreach and advocacy in the archival profession, I tended not to take collections from geographic locations that don’t speak to the historical memory of where they will be stewarded. But not every archivist or special collections curator is that conscientious. There’s been a lot of controversies in the last 20 years over some significant Black history collections such the Martin Luther King or the Malcolm X papers. I would be angry if I saw the Harold Washington papers ending up at UCLA or Atlanta, for example.
I remember when I learned of Washington’s passing. I went downtown to the Chicago Cultural Center and sat in their big picture window. You could see people crying. There was a stark difference between the people who were crying and those who were just going about their day — business as usual. African Americans were beside ourselves. A lot of the white people were just walking as if it was an ordinary day. It seemed like something in the city just died for us, that hope ― the dreams we had for what he could continue to do for Black Chicagoans. Memories like that, that’s within my collective memory of Chicago. How are we going to preserve that for future generations, capture those feelings? It’s up to us as memory keepers to make these connections between these collections that may have been dislocated.
Q: We’ve spoken with Kevin Young, and Carla Hayden — another Chicagoan and the 14th librarian of Congress — what do you envision as you grow in your position?
A: There are so many opportunities. I definitely want to make strong connections through education of K-12 and graduate students. I’m thinking of myself growing up as a young Black child in Chicago, places like the Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry. My mother had a standing ritual where she took me to one of those museums every weekend because she wanted me to see that there was something beyond my environment on the West Side. Between that and our strong connection to libraries, that’s how I ended up as the product I am today. I always wondered as a child, what was at the Smithsonian? I would hear this name. And I didn’t go to the Smithsonian for the first time until I was well into my 30s. I just thought, I’m sure there are other children out there who may be experiencing the same thing. So how can I bring our collections into that home of the child who’s living in Hyde Park, living in St. Louis or Los Angeles? That’s something I want to focus on through our digital collections and coming up with curriculum models with our executive leadership team at Smithsonian Libraries and Archives.
We must educate our youth about what primary resources are. When I did research papers as a high school student, the Chicago History Fair was the first introduction I had to using primary sources in my writing. You’re normally just trained to use secondary sources, but they taught us how to interpret from diaries and personal papers, how to analyze narratives from oral histories and it’s that kind of critical thinking that our young people need.
I just keep thinking about the little girl I was in Chicago. People have to be vested in a child’s success and part of that investment is bringing them to libraries and showing them that this is a literal kingdom of knowledge for them, and just let them wander and find what interests them. It gives them the key to inquiry, about history, about society, politics and that’s what my mom did with me. She did not have a high school (diploma). But what she couldn’t give me in terms of material, security, she at least gave me the ability to believe dreams could happen.
Q: What’s left on your career to-do list?
A: I’m on cloud nine so much with this position. And there’s so much at the Smithsonian to do. It’s an organization that keeps evolving and I can see this being my work resting home. We have two new museums opening and one of those museums is dedicated to the history of women in America. The other is the National Museum of the American Latino (NMAL). Each of those museums will have a library research center. It will be a good opportunity for Smithsonian libraries and archives to work with those new directors such as Jorge Zamanillo, founding director of NMAL , or Lisa Sasaki, interim director of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum, in carving out just what the collecting agenda and research narrative will be for those libraries and the communities we serve. That’s an amazing opportunity right there in itself.
Another great treasure is the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum (NPM). A lot of people when they think of the Postal Museum, they think only of stamps. But there are a lot of documents in the Postal Museum that are about struggle and racial inequality. I want a great collaboration with Postal Museum Director Elliot Gruber and head Postal Museum librarian Baasil Wilder. A lot of African Americans have served as mail carriers and work in the post office, including many in my family. Like the Pullman Porter Museum a lot of Black labor history and struggles for work equality are documented in those archives. I don’t think I will ever be bored working at the Smithsonian. If I’m bored at this job, something is wrong with me.
Q: You’ve worked at many great institutions, what are you most proud of?
A: I’m really proud of people in a profession who are thriving now who I’ve mentored and taught. For almost seven years I taught archives, history and collective memory courses at Dominican University in River Forest and I also teach at California Rare Book School at UCLA. I’m really proud of that. Because there are a lot of people that, even if they have a college degree, they still question: What can I do? I have never been unemployed in this profession. It also has a lot of people who are willing to give to see us bring good people into the profession. So, I’m proud of that. In terms of if you’re looking at all the places where I’ve worked and the work I’ve done, probably the Black Metropolis Research Consortium at the University of Chicago because I think that’s close to my heart being a native Chicagoan. I still don’t feel that nationally or globally people fully respect or understand the depth and scope of the Great Migration and Black Arts Movement in Chicago and the civil rights struggle. Now, Chicago has unfortunately been overtaken by media perceptions of narratives of Black-on-Black violence and drive-by shootings which fail to holistically edify narratives of Black triumph and joy among Chicago’s Black people. I get defensive about that as a native because you and I both know that there are a lot of success stories in Chicago and especially Black success stories, stories of Black Chicago excellence. Historian Timuel Black who lived to be 102. Harold Washington, Anthony Overton who created a Black cosmetics company, Carl Cotton black taxidermist at the Field Museum, artist Eldzier Cortor Of course, we can’t forget there is a lot of legacy with the DuSable Museum and Margaret Taylor-Burroughs. It seems like you don’t hear those Chicago narratives of Black triumph enough.
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