Ann Petry Papers

December 2, 2020

By Nancy Kuhl

The Ann Petry Manuscripts collection in the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection (JWJ MSS 206) contains the writings of American author Ann Petry. Writings consist of drafts of Petry’s novels Country Place (1947) and The Street (1946), some with extensive revisions. Some draft pages were written on the back of Negro Women, Incorporated, newsletters and governance documents. Also included are drafts of Petry’s review of Margaret Halsey’s Color Blind: A White Woman Looks at the Negro (1946). Correspondence consists of a carbon copy of Petry’s 1944 submission to the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Contest

The history of the collection at Beinecke Library illustrates something of the complexity of a small collection’s lifecycle at a library, where changes over time can both highlight and obscure collections.

The gift of the collection in the 1940s is well documented in library publications. Donors of materials given to Carl Van Vechten for the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection in the 1940s were listed in the program for the opening of the JWJ collection in 1950; Ann Petry’s name can be found there (full text). An announcement was also made in the Yale Library Gazette, now available on JSTOR, about the donation (full text).

For decades, the collection was available for consultation in the Beinecke Library Reading Room; Petry’s manuscripts were described on catalog cards (card images), that were available for consultation in the Library’s lobby. Because online records and description of the collection followed much later, it was difficult for a period of several years to learn much about the collection without visiting the Library. 

Before Beinecke’s 5-year “Baseline Processing Project,” conducted 2008-2013, many thousands of linear feet of manuscript material—roughly 14,000—were not discoverable in either of the Library’s primary electronic databases, the Orbis library catalog or the Archives at Yale database. Though that project ended in 2013, it left many hundreds of uncatalogued linear feet of small collections, including many donations made decades ago from across Beinecke’s collecting areas.

Because of perpetually limited staff and resources, libraries are constantly working to balance the tension between providing some description for more materials in their collection and providing in-depth description for some materials while leaving others undescribed altogether. Researchers should be aware that many hundreds, if not thousands, of archival collections in libraries large and small are not described in WorldCat or in institutional databases. Consulting library staff, therefore, is often a critial research strategy.

When the Beinecke Library moved its technical services operations to an off-site facility in 2015, the collection was moved to the processing site. The Ann Petry collection was selected to serve as a project for an archivist hired specifically to work on African American materials, as part of a consortial program with the Historymakers project.

While moving archival collections off-site facilitates their organization and description, it complicates scholars’ and library staff members’ ability to identify and locate them. Regardless of procedural changes or call number updates, collections stored in stacks adjacent to a reading room can be asked after by scholars visiting the library in person and storage areas can be surveyed by staff aware of past and present call numbers, in process stack shifting, and other library operations. Searching for the similar materials off site becomes much more difficult, requiring more complicated communication chains and the coordinated efforts of multiple staff members; retrieving such material for consultation in the reading room is likewise complicated by such necessary expansion.

Beinecke Library staff are dedicated to mitigating any confusion that may result from unavoidable operational and technical procedures. We welcome your queries about all of our collections: Ask a Librarian.

The Ann Petry collection now has a detailed guide: Ann Petry Manuscripts JWJ MSS 206.It can be requested for use in the reading room by following standard library procedures; copies can be requested as well.

Questions? Contact the curators.

IMAGE: Ann Petry photographed by Carl Van Vechten, November 12, 1948