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Shaping SF: Radical Archiving and Cataloging as Social History

I forgot to take pictures of the actual event, but here's some brochures and my notes!

I forgot to take pictures of the actual event, but here’s some brochures and my notes!

Yesterday, I went to Shaping SF’s public talk on “Radical Archiving and Cataloguing as Social History.”  Part of a larger series, the talk featured an archivist from the Oakland Museum of California’s All Of Us Or None poster collection and two archivists from the Freedom Archives.

As the title implies, the theme was Radical Archiving, or the collecting and cataloguing of materials from historically marginalized or underserved communities. This is in contrast to more “typical” archives – presidential papers, mainstream newspapers, medieval religious texts, etc. Freedom Archives, for example, maintain a large collection on prisons. Another common aspect of radical archives, they explained, is that the collecting and preserving often originates from and remains in the communities from which they derive their material – again, in contrast with institutions like the Bancroft or the Huntington, which mostly gather material from outside sources.

The evening began with short talks.  Lincoln Cushing, the gentleman from the Oakland Museum of California, presented a powerpoint on Radical Archiving, which he differentiated from Radical Archives. His talk focused on the reasons for Radical Archiving, and the ways in which modern technology make it easier.

Key innovations he noted included (paraphrased):

  • The ease of taking and distributing digital images
  • The ability to conduct online research
  • The ease of creating web databases
  • The possibility of receiving feedback from experts and/or historical actors online
The slides aren't up yet, so here's my crappy drawing of it

The slides aren’t up yet, so here’s my crappy drawing of it

One slide that particularly resonated with me was his “Life Cycle of a Cultural Artifact.” He traces the life of an object as:

  • Object created
  • Object used
  • Object saved
  • Object archived
  • Object catalogued and displayed
  • Object reused

Using social justice posters as an example, Lincoln traced the life cycle from creation of a poster to its use at a rally to its saving, archiving and cataloguing, which culminated  its reuse as  inspiration for other artists.

The second set of speakers – Claude Marks and Nathaniel Moore – spoke about the origins and mission of the Freedom Archives. Unlike Oakland Museum, which collects subversive material but is nonetheless a fairly large institution, Freedom Archives is a small, grassroots organization. The original material consisted of cassette tapes and other audio material from members of social movements in the 1960s and 70s, and the collection has since expanded to audio and video into the 1990s. Freedom Archives has a particular education component, with an internship program for high schoolers and college students and numerous collections aimed towards teaching the history of radical movements. And like Lincoln’s Life Cycle, they favor the reuse of their material: Claude talked about one of their first intern projects, in which high schoolers chose one-minute audio selections that were pressed into vinyl for DJs to use.

One of Nathaniel’s quotes particularly stood out to me:

“Archivists get so excited about material, we want to speak for the material,” he explained, while his philosophy was about “letting the material speak for itself.” I think this statement speaks to both the benefits and the risks of historical reuse: it can be easy to appropriate or reimagine a historical document or event to suit certain purposes, causing one to lose sight of its actual intention. At the same time, it’s important to take ownership of a history and allow it to resonate in the present.

After the talks, the event transitioned into group discussion. Much of the evening’s conversation revolved around the perceived disparity between grassroots, community archives and large institutional archives. Several audience members recounted horror stories of donating small collections to large libraries, only to find out it would take years for them to be processed and made available for use. There seemed to be some indignation on the part of audience members over perceived priorities of these large institutions. An archivist from Stanford, however, pointed out that the time it takes for processing may not have anything to do with the librarians themselves: processing archives just takes a long time.

I’m not sure how I feel about this “us vs. them” ethos that seemed to emerge by the end of the night: although stymied by the Stanfordian’s comment, it remained a persistent theme. But as Lincoln himself explained, each type of archive has its tradeoffs. I agree for the high value of smaller organizations for preserving local and radical histories: after all, these are the types of things that may slip through the cracks. At the same time, I think there is something to be said for the safety and continuity assured by a larger institution; their storage facilities are simply well-built. On the other hand, items at a large institution may be lost, and the curators may lack the intimate knowledge one may encounter at a smaller collection. But smaller collections may not keep up the same standard of documentation for their accessions, causing difficulties down the line. And so on and so forth.

Another interesting point of discussion involved putting history on the landscape. The Freedom Archives, for example, put together a display at the community center at the site of the former International Hotel. I happen to be reading James’ Loewan’s Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong, the sequel to Lies My Teacher Told Me, his analysis of American high school text books and everything they misrepresent. The book critiques numerous historical monuments for being antiquated, racist, and factually incorrect; many of the entries refer to Neo-Confederate sites that reshape and glamorize the story of the Confederacy. In a way, it’s a cautionary tale about grassroots historical campaigns, when organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy can appropriate and reshape history to convey a clearly incorrect and harmful interpretation of the past. (Taken from their homepage: “To collect and preserve the material necessary for a truthful history of the War Between the States and to protect, preserve, and mark the places made historic by Confederate valor.” Awk.)

In some ways, the book could be a cautionary tale about communities highjacking history without a care to the past: but the communities in that case represent the dominant classes, whereas the grassroots organizations represent groups typically silenced. The discussion Wednesday focused on integrating radical history into the landscape as well, whether through erecting physical plaques or creating QR codes that link to digital material. There was a general sentiment that radical history was not represented well enough of the landscape. Of course, I’m sure other might consider several Bay Area monuments – such as the bust of Harvey Milk at San Francisco City Hall – to be radical!

There were numerous other topics were discussed than those I listed. I embedded the audio up at the top, or a recording of the discussion is available here. Some of the other topics included tips on digital preservation, questions on the physicality of collections, and some neat anecdotes about people’s personal collections and projects. I’d highly recommend checking it out!

All in all, the main takeaway I got from the night was: remain a hoarder, document my hoarding, digitize the hoarding, and hoard cool shit. No shame. Go Bears.



2 thoughts on “Shaping SF: Radical Archiving and Cataloging as Social History


  1. Pingback: 1776 and the Perils of Historical Performance | Fleemanator Blog - October 2, 2013

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