Processing the Helen Marshall Papers: A Q/A with the Archivist

Did you know that Queens College Special Collections and Archives is home to the Helen Marshall Papers? Donated to the Library by Donald E. Marshall in 2017, the collection is comprised of 40 boxes of papers, photographs, and memorabilia documenting Marshall’s celebrated career in politics.  

Marshall (1929 – 2017) was the second woman and first African American Borough President of Queens, elected to three four-year terms starting in 2001. Earlier, she served on the New York City Council for ten years in the 1990s and in the New York State Assembly for eight years in the 1980s. She was the first director of the Langston Hughes Library in Corona, Queens, when it was founded in 1969. Marshall was the daughter of Guyanese immigrants, growing up in Harlem and the Bronx and obtaining her BA in education from Queens College.    

Thanks to a $12,000 grant from the New York State Archives Documentary Heritage Program, Gianna Fraccalvieri, a graduate student in the Library and Information Studies Program, was recently hired as the Project Archivist to process the collection. In celebration of Black History Month, we sat down with Gianna to discuss the Helen Marshall project as it gets underway.  

Q: Gianna, you are near to completing your graduate degree in Library and Information Studies with a Certificate in Archives. What got you interested in this field? 

Gianna: I’ve always enjoyed the process of conducting historical research as a student, and working in libraries taught me that I enjoy helping others do the same. I learned about archiving as a career field through the MLS/MA dual degree program and became intrigued by the many different roles that archivists can play in facilitating exciting research experiences.  

A conference program from the Helen Marshall Papers.

Q: Now that you have had a chance to survey the collection, what have you learned about Helen Marshall so far? 

Gianna: Throughout her political career, Helen Marshall advocated for the rights and needs of Queens communities concerning a variety of social justice causes, including racial equity, women’s issues, public health and housing, improving higher education at CUNY, and much more. She was a leader on multiple fronts, often championing local initiatives in government by closely participating with community groups and organizations.  

Q: Any gems in the collection that stood out to you? 

Gianna: There are quite a few lovely portraits of Marshall in this collection, documenting the arc of her journey from early childhood to late adulthood. Photographs of Marshall with family and friends, community members, and other well-known politicians help to visually convey her dynamic influence through the years.  

Q: What do you anticipate being a particular challenge to processing this collection? 

Gianna arranging materials from the Helen Marshall Papers.

Gianna: Arranging this collection in a way that makes it as accessible as possible to researchers is one of my top priorities, but I must also consider practical limitations such as the large quantity of materials and the timeframe of the project. Processing this collection will require me to maintain a healthy balance between detail-oriented and big-picture thinking. 

Q: How do you anticipate this collection being used by teachers or researchers in the future? 

Gianna: Broadly, this collection has a high research value for scholars interested in investigating the social and political histories of New York State, New York City, and the borough of Queens between the 1980s and 2010s. Additionally, the mix of professional and personal materials in this collection provides excellent opportunities to study Marshall as a historical figure in her own right, especially regarding her position as a first-generation African American woman in politics. 

Gianna will be preserving, arranging, and cataloging the collection this spring. The project will culminate this June with the publication of an archival finding aid that will make the collection open for research. Stay tuned! 

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