Interview with Activists Archivists

Activists Archivists


As a continuation of our ‘ask the folks who are doing it’ series of interviews, Kelly Haydon was good enough to answer our questions about the goings-on of Activists Archivists. Activists Archivists (ActArc) is “a network of media archivists who support the efforts of individuals and communities to voice their concerns and opinions utilizing all of the digital tools available in our age.”

ActArc operates with a model that I find particularly inspiring. They focus on empowering others to participate in archival processes. A very big thank-you to Kelly and the entire ActArc team for talking to Start an Archives!, and for the work they do.

All links below are supplied by Kelly.


Start an Archives:  ActArc describes itself as “a network of media archivists”.  Can you say a few things about this model? Was this model formed in relation to perceived needs in New York?

Why Archive?

Designed and edited by the Activist Archivists and members of the OWS Archive working group, the card spells out the importance of groups taking responsibility for the record of their activity in simple terms.

Kelly Haydon: Activist Archivists sprang up organically through the collective concerns of archivists and educators affiliated with New York University’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation (MIAP) program…so I can’t say we ever had any sort of formal model in mind (or that we have one today). The term ‘network’ is meant to be inclusive to not just those of us who actively organize projects and schedule meetings here in New York, but anyone anywhere who volunteers their time towards educating, training, and providing support for collectors of community-generated material. The term ‘activist archivist’, like ‘community activist’ or ‘environmental activist’ is less of a brand name than it is a general identifier. We do hope to evolve to a more formal committee structure, though, beyond a loose team of volunteers and into administers of a platform where other archivists and underserved communities can connect and engage.

The term ‘activist archivist’, like ‘community activist’ or ‘environmental activist’ is less of a brand name than it is a general identifier.

SaA: What type of formal structure would you like to see ActArc merge into? What kind of platform do you envision?

KH:  As for our future goals, we are mostly just brainstorming at this point. With full-time jobs, it’s hard for the volunteers to commit to high-level projects. Hackerspaces – such as NYC Resistor – are very much an inspiration, and we would love to see an “archivespace” pop up in the same vein, a physical space where people can bring items to be repaired, or work on their cataloging adventures, share resources, research, etc.

SaA:  To continue our history lesson, how did the group form? What archives/librarian training did founding members have, if any? Do you find that new people interested in Activists Archivists tend to come from the archives/library world, or are they more likely to be from the media world?

KH: In October of 2011, with Occupy Wall Street about a month in and Zuccotti Park quickly morphing into a pop-up village, Rufus de Rham, Marie Lascu and I – students in the MIAP program – were all fired up in solidarity and discussed how we could get involved as archivists. The three of us had been inspired by one of our instructors, Mona Jimenez (who we credit with coining the term ‘activist archiving’) and her commitment towards leveling the historic record with a balance of voices, advocating that best practices can and should be bent so that underfunded communities can participate in archival activities. I think it’s safe to say this drives most of the committed volunteers of Activist Archivists.

Best practices can and should be bent so that underfunded communities can participate in archival activities.

Initially, five of us got together – including the director of the program, Howard Besser, who has been the most vocal and visible supporter of the group – and discussed the logistics of setting up space on the university servers for ingesting Occupy related media content. A bit naively we assumed that, with the right kind of donor agreement, this offer of donated server space would be embraced by the various media groups related to Occupy Wall Street. Our role from there could be working with the media groups on an ingest workflow.

We had about 10-12 people attending weekly meetings, mostly student archivists but also educators and librarians. For the first year or so, a representative of the OWS Archives Working Group attended our meetings. Through her, we did connect with members of the OWS media groups. They did not attend meetings, but some provided great feedback and helped with editing our “Why Archive” postcard.  Overall all, though, the interest in the group during our early existence was almost exclusively from people in the library and archive world. However, through our relationship with Third World Newsreel (TWN) that is beginning to change.

SaA: Third World Newsreel is a major project for ActArc; you’re currently working to get their 40 year collection in order. Can you tell us about this? What are the goals, the timeline, how’s it going?

KH: It’s going great. We’ve been blogging about the process on our website if your readers are interested in learning more. TWN sought our help to organize and inventory elements relating to their Newsreel history. Newsreel was a collective in the late 60’s and early 70’s that produced 16mm short documentaries on social justice issues of the day. The films were then distributed as alternatives to mainstream media and education curriculums.

Newsreel has a fractured history and the elements – mostly film, but some video – are scattered in various locations across the country. We believe the bulk of the material resides in a storage facility in Jersey City and have been focusing on organizing the 10’ x 10’ unit. So far we have built shelves, removed chemically damaged items, and taken inventory.  This summer, we will continue with the cataloguing process and compile a collection assessment that will assist them with applications for digitization grants.

TWN also invited us to lead archiving workshops for their filmmakers. Rufus de Rham is our primary educator and he has given some great talks regarding digital issues, care and handling, metadata protocols, and concerns with ‘storing’ material on media sharing sites such as Youtube.

SaA: How are your projects chosen? Is the decision making of the process group collaborative? Do  you take suggestions and/or appeals for assistance from organizations?

KH: The core  team is highly collaborative and we do not take on a project without group support. Our projects fall into one of two areas: assistance and advocacy. Team members seem to gravitate towards one area or another. TWN sought us out, but we have responded to general appeals for assistance; we recently had a meeting with the Josephine Herrick Project after they sought for a volunteer archivist on a listserv.

Our projects fall into one of two areas: assistance and advocacy.

SaA: Under the list of Collaborators on your website, the “institutionally-independent” Occupy Wall Street Archive is listed along with well-established institutions such as the Tamiment Library, part of NYU Libraries.  You mentioned above that the start of ActArc was tied to the happenings of OWS. This got us thinking about the goal of the OWS Archive to own its own history, a concern stimulated by the many attempts by various organizations to collect Occupy material.

KH: In the first six months of our existence, Howard Besser arranged monthly conference calls with representatives at these institutions. All of them, save WITNESS, were collecting their own mostly-digital OWS material.  It was a phenomenon, all these folks having the same idea at the same time; every week we seemed to learn of a new organization actively collecting or requesting OWS-related material. This was disappointing for me at first, and I think for some members of the Occupy Wall Street Working Group, precisely because it didn’t feel like the movement had control of their own creative content. But then again, that was sort of the point of the open-sourced, free culture the movement advocated, wasn’t it? Who owns the narrative of an open society?  The topic was hotly debated in various meetings and forums.

It was a phenomenon, all these folks having the same idea at the same time; every week we seemed to learn of a new organization actively collecting or requesting OWS-related material.

That’s when ActArcs started thinking maybe we would be more useful as a liaison between organizations and Occupy rather than serving as archivists ourselves, using our connections as a channel for communication lines to flow between activists and these collecting institutions. In some ways we succeeded, OWSers in the working group began actively sending OWS links to Archive-It, a website archiving service, and for a time we assisted Tamiment with developing their ingest protocols for audio from the Think Tank group (some files were coming in without dates). But yes, there was strong reaction against submitting material to an NYU library, an institution very distrusted in some activist circles.

I can’t speak for everybody, but I found this pushback from OWS to be depressing, some so vocal as to cast us as enemies. We learned the hard way that what is in the best interest of the collection is not always in the best interest of a movement in action. It took the wind out of our sails and this initial mass interest in archiving OWS eventually faded. We do continue to keep in touch with collaborators and remain on friendly terms with the most active members of the working group, but no longer serve in an advisory role.

SaA:  Continuing on this theme:  as a group, is there any friction between the social justice goals you set for yourself and the repositories that you work with? For example, if you were to work with an organization to prepare their records for permanent placement, how much emphasis is given on ensuring that the repository is in alignment with the causes of the organization? Is this a current concern with the Third World Newsreel?

KH: Part of our communication between organizations and activists was trying to break down the concern of missions aligning with causes. The late Michael Nash, Director of Tamiment Library at the time, attended Occupy Wall Street meetings and took great care to answer the questions of the activists. He absolutely agreed that that their normal donor agreement would need to be modified, and that members of the group should be allowed to work with the materials.  Tamiment, a labor and social justice archive – and one of the few public libraries at NYU – was by far the most philosophically tuned into the OWS movement. But it resides an institution much reviled for its questionable real estate ventures.

It’s a complicated story. One that caused a great deal of stress on the OWS Archives Working Group who were pressured to find an independent space to store the physical materials, but were unable too despite many months of searching; but it’s a story better told by them as we largely participated from the sidelines.

This isn’t so much of a concern with TWN, in fact they do have many of their materials stored at the University of Wisconsin. With their collection aging upward to 45 years, the threat of extinction is much more palpable than the mass influx of data that continues to generate from OWS; preserving that history is in their list of priorities.  TWN is also not a movement, but a production and distribution company with clear ownership of their materials; the question of ‘who owns the narrative’ would not be as much of an issue under most types of donor agreements.

SaA: The structure of ActArc is different from a lot of the community collections that we feature here on the blog, and we suspect a lot of people will be inspired by your model. Do you have any final thoughts for people wanting to organize similar projects in other cities?

KH: Anyone is welcome to get in touch with us and brainstorm a plan in their hometown. We would love to hear about the challenges afflicting collections in other cities. I do think a good place to start would be organizing a community workshop on basic cataloging or preservation. This is a great way to assess the needs of the community.  We try to keep our volunteer work to basic spreadsheet inventory and storage organization and we’ve also helped institutions receive archive interns to assist with cataloguing and grant research. There is a fine line between volunteering and working for free, so we try to do as much training during our times as volunteers so as to empower the communities with the know-how to sustain their own archives. This general advice off the top of my head; we are feeling through our process through trial and error and would love to share experiences and skills with others.

There is a fine line between volunteering and working for free, so we try to do as much training during our times as volunteers so as to empower the communities with the know-how to sustain their own archives.

All are free to email with any question they might have or join the Google Group mailing list:!forum/activistarchivists

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