Collection Creation Case Study: African American Fiction


July 15, 2022

By Chris Powell, Coordinator, Encoded Text Services, University of Michigan Library

I’ve been building collections since the summer of 2008, when collection building functionality was added to HathiTrust’s predecessor, MBooks. What started as a task to demonstrate the functionality and utility of the feature has turned into an ongoing fascination with stumbling onto a topic and seeing if I can locate material on that topic in HathiTrust. If there is intriguing material, I inevitably build a collection – generally a private one for my own use – but if there are enough titles and a reasonably interesting focus I will make a public collection. One such collection is African American Fiction, which contains fiction (including plays) by Black American authors.

I believe that I started this collection in early 2019, probably after seeing some Black History Month list or another. It is possible that the continuing popularity of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand on the HathiTrust top ten list spurred me to see what else might be available that people would be interested in reading if they knew it was in HathiTrust. This is the point where I need to say that while I’m a librarian, I’m not a reference librarian and I’m not a scholar in the field, so while the collection is fairly carefully curated, it’s not in any way authoritative. I’m just a curious person with good searching skills who believes that other people probably share my curiosity, so I should pass along what I find.

As I usually do, I started with the Advanced Full-text Search and searched for the title and author of the various books on the list. While there are about a thousand or so catalog records from Emory University where they have added a local Index Term-Genre/Form field containing “African American author.”, there is no straightforward way to search the entire collection for Black authors, or for fiction, either. You have to work by authors and titles individually. Using the Advanced Full-text Search gives results for individual copies of books, so you can check the boxes for the volumes you want and immediately add them to a collection. Early on I had to make some decisions about including copyrighted works (identified in the interface as Limited (search-only)) and whether or not to add duplicates of individual titles. I opted to include search-only works and to choose the earliest version of a title and include multiple copies if it was open for reading, in case of bad scans or heavy reader annotations.

Over time, I filled out the collection more by consulting other sources. The stacks are right outside my office in the Hatcher Graduate Library and the Zs (bibliography) are just a half-floor away, so I picked up some bibliographies that were on the shelves – Afro-American Fiction, 1853-1976; A Century of Fiction by American Negroes, 1853-1952; A Selected Bibliography of Black Literature: The Harlem Renaissance; and Black American Women in Literature. In early 2020, a colleague at another institution tweeted a list of the “100 greatest books ever written by African American women” and I searched the authors included, choosing not only the greatest novels but others that were in HathiTrust as well. Between this list and Black American Women in Literature, it probably skews the collection toward women, so I noted that in the collection description.

Finding out about the Novel Collections at the Black Book Interactive Project was probably the biggest leap forward. As I mention in my collection description, I worked my way through the entries for 1800-1965, where the greatest number of titles open for reading might be found. At some point I’ll resume searching but I found fewer and fewer titles as the 20th century progressed, so it became a bit of an unrewarding slog. That doesn’t stop me from searching individual titles as I find them, though. I read a review of James Hannaham’s Delicious Foods after the Kara Walker cover caught my eye, and while it isn’t in HathiTrust, his earlier novel God Says No is. I am adding volumes as I encounter them, and always appreciate a pointer to a new resource. If you have titles to suggest for inclusion in the collection, pass them on to

Read more about creating HathiTrust collections or watch this video.