Laura Helton is a historian who writes about collections and how they shape our world.

She is currently an Assistant Professor of English and History at the University of Delaware, where she teaches African American literature, book history, archival studies, and public humanities.

Her first book, Scattered and Fugitive Things: How Black Collectors Created Archives and Remade History, will be released by Columbia University Press in April 2024.

Her research and writing chronicles the emergence of African diasporic archives in the United States and, more broadly, asks how information practices–material acts of collecting, collation, and cataloging–scaffold literary and historical thought.

She is a Scholar-Editor of “Remaking the World of Arturo Schombur​g,” a collaborative digital project with Fisk University and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Her research has been supported by fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Bibliographical Society of America, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library, and the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African and African American Studies at the University of Virginia.

Professor Helton’s interest in the social history of archives arose from her earlier career as an archivist. She has surveyed and processed collections that document the civil rights era, women’s movement, and American radicalism for several cultural institutions, including the Mississippi Digital Library, Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, CityLore, and the Schomburg Center. She has also worked with arts organizations as a grant writer and curator.​​​​​

Full list of publications

Photo taken at Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia, by Jess Benjamin.

New book!

Scattered and Fugitive Things

Published April 16, 2024

During the first half of the twentieth century, a group of collectors and creators dedicated themselves to documenting the history of African American life. At a time when dominant institutions cast doubt on the value or even the idea of Black history, these bibliophiles, scrapbookers, and librarians created an enduring set of African diasporic archives. In building these institutions and amassing abundant archival material, they also reshaped Black public culture, animating inquiry into the nature and meaning of Black history.

Scattered and Fugitive Things tells the stories of these Black collectors, traveling from the parlors of the urban north to HBCU reading rooms and branch libraries in the Jim Crow south.

In this book, I chronicle the work of six key figures: bibliophile Arturo Schomburg, scrapbook maker Alexander Gumby, librarians Virginia Lee and Vivian Harsh, curator Dorothy Porter, and historian L. D. Reddick. Drawing on overlooked sources such as book lists and card catalogs, I reveal the risks collectors took to create Black archives. I also explore the social life of collecting, highlighting the communities that used these collections from the South Side of Chicago to Roanoke, Virginia. In each case, archiving was alive in the present, a site of intellectual experiment, creative abundance, and political possibility.

“Scattered and Fugitive Things is an absolute marvel . . . Each page is a treasure to be savored.

Vanessa K. Valdés

author of Diapsoric Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg