Tag Archives: community archives

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 activistarchivsts@gmail.com with any question they might have or join the Google Group mailing list: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/activistarchivists

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Community Archives and Larger Community of Archivists

A few  notes from the most recent issue (Vol. 13, Nos. 2-3) of Archival Science. (These are just the first two articles to catch my eye. If you get a chance, I suggest you read them, and all the other articles, for yourself. They’re quite good.)

I Thought I was Doing It For The Love, But It Turns Out I’m Just a Child of My Time.

Terry Cook, in his article “Memory, Identity and Community: Four Shifting Archival Paradigms” (pp. 95-102) writes “over the past 150 years have gone through four phases: from juridical legacy to cultural memory to society engagement to community archiving.”

A new paradigm, a new mindset, for archivists is currently emerging. This new paradigm urges archivists to “transform themselves from elite experts behind institutional walls to becoming mentors, facilitators, coaches, who work in the community to encourage archiving as a participatory process shared with many in society, rather than necessarily acquiring all the archival products in our established archives” (114, his emphasis).

Cook readily admits paradigms are hard things to pin down, and most of his observations stem from emerging trends in archival writing and published calls for actions. Still, his observations seem correct to me. When I first set out to detail the trials and tribulations of starting and maintaining community archives, I didn’t realize how many similar projects existed. So many, in fact, that much of the time devoted to this blog is spent finding folks to interview.

There must be something in the air. Or maybe people who become archivists these days are more comfortable with the idea that our skills can be merged with communities with whom we want to work (and promote). Whatever it is, it’s nice to know there are plenty of people to learn from.

Archivists Who are Activists Tend To … That’s Right, Actively Archive

Way in the back of the issue, S. Yaco and B.B. Hardy (pp. 253-272) examine “how activism by historians and archivists relate to and affects their work and how their work affects their activism”.

While it is important to have articles discussing what we mean when we say things like “community archives” and “collective memory”, it’s also rather tedious. That’s why it’s often refreshing to find an article that simply asks people working in the field what they do and why they do it.

Reporting on a survey of historians and archivists who consider themselves activists (“someone who takes part in activities that are intended to achieve social or political change, especially someone who is a member of an organization”), Yaco and Hardy relay that the “among the 76 archivists who responded to this question, the most common form of activity is to encourage activists and activists organization to preserve and retain their records (80%), followed by encouraging the deposit of records in an archival repository (66%a)” (p. 259).

It’s a heart warming thought: small armies of activist archivists running around saving records for the future. It’s also nice to be reminded that those of us doing this are not alone. There are many like-minded archivists out there. Some of whom we may meet in the process of our work, some of whom we’ll never know about. But the future is better off for our work, whoever the hell we are.

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Toward a Community Records Management Program

For all the differences between independent, community collections and established collecting repositories, there are some areas of definite similarity. Collection development is often one such area.

Donations to community collections often come, just as they do in many manuscript repositories, in spurts. Sometimes it’s abrupt drop-offs containing multiple boxes of unsolicited and unmarked boxes. Sometimes its almost nothing of long-term value, despite the time and effort spent working with the donor.

One area of collection development that we rarely see  in community collections (correct us below in the comments if we’re wrong) is records management — the systematic approach to the life-cycle of records, to help ensure their proper care after their use is done (paraphrased from everyone’s favorite glossary).

Records management programs help ensure (among other things) that records of enduring value make it to the relevant archives. Such programs often exist in highly structured, bureaucratic environments, such as  business and university settings.

This seems like exactly the type of collaboration that community collections — often working with (very) minimal budgets and staff — could use.  Many hands, after all, make light work.

Records Management Programs represent that type of collaboration that is sorely needed for community collections.

What would a community records management program look like?

So, what would a community records management program look like? For starters, it would probably only deal with the latter-half of the records cycle. For example, in the fast-paced world of functioning social justice organizations (or, place your-area-of-interest here), no one is likely to listen to us if we were to tell them how their records should be created. The form the records take will be shaped by the needs they fill and all other relevant considerations.

We can, however, ask them to hold on to stuff they make. We can explain that it’s important to capture a full picture of the organization. We can even work with them to explain what about the organization we hope to document, and help them think about which records best do this. We don’t keep everything and there’s no reason to pretend otherwise.

So a community records management program might look like this: Donors agree to set aside copies of relevant paper-based material (fliers, say, or meeting minutes after a certain amount of time), and/or send emails to a specified email account if the records are created and dispersed electronically. The Archives then does whatever it needs to — further appraisal, etc.

Yea, but how feasible is any of this really?

We’re a practical-minded bunch here at Start an Archives!, and we assume the same of you. How likely is it to expect anyone to set aside stuff? After some work in this area, our official answer is “kind of likely, sometimes.”

How likely is all this? After some work in this area, our official answer is “kind of likely, sometimes.”

But honestly, how ideal are most records management programs? People might set aside things for us, especially if we have a designated space for it to go. Playing up the only-set-aside-what-is-actually-important angle will probably be a bit harder.

Just like in other settings, getting people to do things for you works best when it’s very, very easy for them. If you’re interested in just keeping standard notices of activity, you can, say, simply subscribe to mailing lists, and keep those emails as a record of events.  If you know that paper records are created, maybe a designated box is a good idea: “when these are made and distributed, please just drop a copy or two in our Archives box”.

With more time, failures and success we hope this will be easier to set up (and articulate) in the future. Until then, let us know if anyone has this figured. We hate reinventing wheels.


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Philadelphia Alliance of DIY Libraries

It has been mentioned a few times here already, but it bears repeating, I think: there’s a new group in the early stages of formation — the Philadelphia Alliance of DIY Libraries (PADIYL) — that aims to help small, independent libraries and archives join forces and share resources and know-how.

The website can be found here: www.padiyl.org.

If you’re in the Philadelphia are and you’re interested in getting involved, there is a meeting coming up later this month.

This holds great promise for the city and for community collections everywhere.

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Review: Make Your Own History: Documenting Feminist and Queer Activism in the 21st Century

Make Your Own History: Documenting Feminist and Queer Activism in the 21st Century
Edited by Lyz Bly and Kelly Wooten
Litwin Books 2012


Volumes from the library and archives world that set out to discuss the documentation of traditionally un- or under-documented communities tend to fall into one or more of the following traps:

  1. Creating a straw-man version of “traditional” archives –  against which the archive project in question (feminist, queer, racial/ethical minority, activist, etc.) is compared favorably
  2. Uncritically claiming “archiving is activism” – without asking whether that means all archivists are activists
  3. Having authors write about projects with which they are not involved – as though those involved cannot speak for themselves
  4. Failing to offer any helpful advice for similar projects in the future – either from too much emphasis on theory, or simple generalizations.

Make Your Own History falls into all of these traps at least once.

This is not surprising, and much of this can be explained, and forgiven, by considering the difficulty involved in putting these volumes together. I hope that as the literature of activist collecting grows, these pitfalls will become increasingly less common.

What is surprising, however, is how out of sync the title of this book often seems from the content of the essays. For a book on the topic of documenting feminism, queer activism and the corresponding DIY ethic, it is surprisingly conservative. Whatever one might think when one hears the phrase “make your own history” most of the authors seem to mean something akin to “give your material to an established archive”.  The volume would have benefited greatly by including essays by people working in community archives. The absence of these voices gives the distinct impression that non university-based collections do not deserve serious considerations.

The failure of Make Your Own History to take seriously alternative opportunities to collect and preserve feminist and queer history is exemplified in the following example:

Kathleen Hanna,  a central figure in the history of riot girrrl and promoter of a strong DIY ethic, is quoted as saying: “Universities have more money than most left political groups and personally I don’t want lefty feminist groups spending their resources maintaining archives when they could be doing more important things” (p. 32).  This is said by way of justifying the gift of her papers to NYU’s Fales Library. This statement is uncritically accepted by author. Preservation is an over-riding concern for donors, the author of the essay claims — and the assumption is that only established archives are up to this challenge.

Angela DiVeglia gives more credit to LGBT community archives in her essay  “Accessibility, Accountability, and Activism: Models for LGBT Archives,” but still speaks from the point of view of established institutions. By way of investigating how established archives can better represent the LGBT community, she asks “What models can community archives offer, and what are the opportunities for cooperative relationships between formal and community archives?” (pp. 70-71). It’s refreshing to hear community archives taken seriously, but it’s disappointing that the investigation is from the point of view of “formal archives” — as though community archives are a curiosity to be studied and used as a resource. DiVeglia’s essay is impressive for it’s concern for reaching out to the community, I only wish it was from the outside looking in.

I feel similarly about an interview with Milo Miller from the Queer Archives Zine Project (QZAP), found in Jenna Brager and Jamie Sailor’s “Archiving the Underground”. QZAP is a project to scan zines and put them online to increase accessibility. This interview is certainly worth reading, and we’re lucky to have it reprinted here. We would have been luckier, I think, to have had an account of QZAP directly from Miller, or someone else involved in the project. Instead, the interview is a copy of zine pages where the interview was first published. It is disappointing to have the most interesting project treated within the wider scope of an essay concerning other matters.

Even within the restricted world of formal university-associated libraries, there is not much that has to do with making your own history. Many of the accounts of library collections that include feminist and/or queer history are simply short histories of how these collections came to be in the library. I fail to  understand how this helps anyone who is wants to make their own history.

Despite these shortcomings, a hand-full of essays  deserve recognition for moving the discussion of community documentation forward. The two essays under the header “Electronic Records” — Erin O’Meara’s “Perfecting the New Wave of Collecting,” and “No Documents, No History: Traditional Genres New Formats” by Amy Benson and Kathryn Jacob — deserve applause for offering concrete examples of documenting electronic records. O’Meara outlines specific steps taken at the University or Oregon’s Special Collections, including pre-custodial intervention (PCI), collecting strategies and working with groups of interest to establish a “digital archivist” in the field to facilitate transfer of electronic records as they are produced. Benson and Jacob report on projects at Harvard to capture, describe and present blogs and Websites. Descriptions of the system to capture, store, describe and promote the material is balanced with examples of outreach and debates about what to capture. This essay does a great job of offering an overview of the challenges and opportunities of collecting electronic records for the Women’s Archive.

Elizabeth Myers’ essay “The Jugging Act: Cooperative Collecting and Archival Allies” also deserves special recognition, I think. She offers a good deal of lessons learned in her role as head of the Women and Leadership Archives at Loyola Chicago. In addition to discussing important issues of relevancy, she recounts the example of community projects that brought in a great deal of attention and material, and warns of pitfalls that she encountered.

Alana Kumbier closes her impressive essay — “Inventing History: The Watermelon Women and Archive Activism” — by acknowledging what should have been stated at the beginning of Make Your Own History: “archives and counter-archives offer different kinds of sources and reminds us sources from different archives support distinct bodies of knowledge and hold multiple kinds of value (historic, sentimental, evidential) for researchers” (p. 102). There is more to document than can fit in university-related archives. And different bodies of knowledge benefit from different types of archives.

Make Your Own History has it’s ups and downs, and it’s biggest problem is the failure to treat community archives as serious alternatives to university-based collections. At it’s best, however, the volume offers insights into the challenging world of community collecting. As the literature on this difficult subject matures, it is my hope that the best continues to outnumber the others. This volume can rightfully take its place as a stepping stone along that path.

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Paschild’s “Community archives and the Limitations of Identity”

When one starts an archives, or even starts to read the literature on the topic, one finds the need to suffer through a lot of postmodern theory. Issues of subjectivity, identity, questions of power relations, and claims to “deconstructing” this and that appear on almost every page.

This blog has attempted a more pragmatic approach to the craft of community archives, and for a long time it’s been a lonely place to be.

But there is hope! The new edition of American Archivist (No. 75, Spring/Summer 2012) brings something I haven’t seen in a while: An article so good I had to tell someone about it.

Christine N. Paschild, in an article entitled “Community archives and the Limitations of Identity: Considering Discursive Impact on Material Needs,” argues that the postmodern vocabulary habitually used when discussing community archives serves to marginalize these collections, and distracts from the practical and important goal of fulling their mission. And, further, that this is quite ironic, because those who partake in the vocabulary consider themselves proponents of community archives.

She frames her discussion specifically around the Japanese American National Museum, but argues convincingly that her point is easily generalizable to all types community archives.

“The history,” she writes in the conclusion, that community archives collect,

just like the community of its origin, is not inherently separate from, independent  of, or marginal to the broader history of the United States. Nor is it any more or less subjective than the history documented by any other collection in any other archives. This begs the question, then, if the conditional caveat of subjectivity is really necessary for the inclusion of community archives in the landscape of professional theory and practice. And, if a continued focus on identity and subjectivity is imperative to successful archival practice, when will it be applied with equal vigor to all archival endeavors?

By focusing on the subjectivity of archives and issues of identity when — and only when — talking about community archives keeps them at a distance, as though other collections are less subjective, or community archives are somehow different because of their focus.

Paschild’s article is a breath of fresh air in a field often chocked by needless jargon and ill-defined theory.

Want to show you take community archives seriously? Start an archives!

(And in the meantime, check out Paschild’s article, we’re lucky to have it.)

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PADILY is born!

Per the promise to keep the updates coming, I am happy to announce that the Philadelphia Area DIY Library Consortium (PADIYL) is officially created as of today.

The Consortium’s mission is to pool the resources of Philadelphia’s small, independent libraries and archives and serve as a resource for the creation of new collection.

Current members include the Radical Archives of Philadelphia, Soapbox Zine Library, the William Way LGBT Archives and the Radical Library of Philadelphia.

Over the coming weeks we’ll be putting together the usual: Website, Facebook page, etc., as well as polishing our mission statement and by laws. If you’re interested in learning more and/or want to help out, let us know.

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“Start an Archives”? Don’t you mean “Start an Archive”? — A note about terminology

When you want to start an archives, you’ll spend a lot of time talking about terminology.

Community archives are often started by people from many different backgrounds and experiences. This variation has many benefits. It also has a notable downside: the need to establish a coherent vocabulary.

‘Archives’ is a word that has become increasingly difficult to define. In computing, we often use ‘archive’ as a verb, as in the compressing of files for future use. In common vernacular we use ‘archive’ or ‘archives’ as a noun, for any material that will kept for long time.

In this blog, and the with projects that motivate it, ‘archives’ is defined as a collection of material created by particular individuals, organization or movements, and that are maintained with attention to provenance and original order. The material has value added when it is properly described and arranged to facilitate research use. And the material is intended to be kept in perpetuity.

This definition follows that of the glossary of the Society of American Archivists.

A coherent vocabulary is important when starting an archives, but it is a means to an end. I have found it useful to advocate this usage of the word ‘archives’ (and the use of the ‘s’ at the end). I have found it more helpful, however, to collect, preserve and promote the material history of organizations and causes that I believe in. When one want to start an archives, it’s the material that matters, not the title of the project .

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