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Olive Pierce photograph

Our Mission & History

The Archive of Documentary Arts is part of Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Our mission is to collect, promote, preserve, and provide access to audio, moving images, photography, and texts from around the world that reflect the breadth of the documentary endeavor and in doing so advance research, instruction, and creative expression in the documentary discipline at Duke University and beyond. We seek contemporary and historical documentary works that are inclusive of a multitude of voices, methodologies, and eras and that are grounded in extended fieldwork to convey experiences that are underrepresented in mass media and cultural institutions.

The Library’s commitment to the documentary arts aligned with the inception of Duke’s Center for Documentary Photography in the 1980s, which later became the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS). In 1991, The Archive of Documentary Arts was formerly initiated with the acquisition of Paul Kwilecki’s photographs and papers, followed by the 1992 acquisition of William Gedney’s photographs and writings. Together these strengthened the Library’s commitment to the collection of both portfolio-based work, and complete archives including documents of the creative process such as work prints, negatives, and journals. The archive that started as a partnership with Center for Documentary Studies has grown to support teaching across campus, in areas such as Anthropology, Art, Art History & Visual Studies, Asian American Diaspora Studies, Cinematic Arts, English, History, Public Policy, Thompson Writing Programs, in addition to the Master of Fine Arts in Experimental and Documentary Arts Program. [Photograph: Olive Pierce Photographs, 1960-2014]

Materials Currently Sought

The archive seeks to preserve and acquire collections of intentionally created narratives and bodies of work that document a broad range of human experience. The archive collects the finished work as well as the materials that record the process of its creation when practical. It collects individual projects as well as career length archives.

  • Activism and Justice. The Archive collects documentary materials related to activism and justice, with a special interest in civil rights and incarceration.
  • Emergent Documentary Practices. Documentary is not a static discipline, and the Archive seeks to grow collections that engage in reflection of the documentary discipline, process, and critique.
  • Faith Communities . The Archive houses several collections dedicated to exploring faith communities. Collections focus on underrepresented communities.
  • Human Environmental Impacts. The Archive collections work related to the environment, with a specific interest in the human impact and environmental justice and racism.
  • Labor and Work. Building on strong labor collections in the Rubenstein, the Archive of Documentary Arts seeks to add a visual history to the labor movement in the United States, with a particular focus on work in and around unions.
  • Lives of Marginalized Communities. The Archive works with creators from across different communities to collect and preserve stories from within. Special attention is given to areas of race, gender identity, and citizenship.
  • War on Camera. With a focus on U.S. military presence at home and abroad, the Archive collects representations of war and conflict, as well as the preparations and impact. Special attention is given to the role of the camera in making visible, and participating in, the creation of nationalism, anti-nationalism, and memory.


The Archive collects documentary work across many formats including film, photography, audio and writing. These may take the form of digital video and audio, analog film, photographic prints, photobooks, zines, as well as organizational records, and documentary text.

Material Not Sought

To best concentrate our resources, the Archive is currently not seeking bodies of work that are a survey of a place or time, or materials primarily created through the product of travel outside of the U.S. The Archive is also less active in collecting predetermined collections, such as groupings of cabinet cards.