Do grassroots archives have a future?

0 Posted by - November 28, 2012 - Blog, Installations, Policy, Visual art

About 40 people gathered in Toronto last night to discuss what many hope will grow into a movement for archiving grassroots histories. The public meeting was organized by Ulli Diemer of the Connexions Archive as a way to bring like-minded activists and scholars together to find strategies for preserving the heritage of social movements and marginalized communities in Toronto and across Canada. (Check out #Connexions for the twitter feed from the event.)

The meeting was held at the Beit Zatoun House, a community centre and gallery that promotes arts and culture exploring issues of social justice and human rights. There was an exhibition of materials from the Connexions Archive in the gallery space where the meeting was held, a collection of magazine covers from grassroots publications dating back to the early 1970s. Connexions describes their archive (gathered over a period of more than 40 years) as a “living archive” which emphasizes the importance of encouraging public access and interaction with their archived materials.

Invited speakers included Dennis Findlay and Helen Lenskyj of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA) who told the remarkable story of what is apparently the largest gay and lesbian archive in the world. The CLGA was started independently in 1973, and only recently secured a permanent home in a city-owned house located near downtown Toronto. The archive also hosts a public gallery where artifacts from the archive are exhibited to encourage public interest and interaction with the collection. (The new space in fact houses only 25% of the CLGA collection; storage space remains an ongoing concern.)

Another speaker was Natalie Zemon Davis, Professor of History Emeritus, Princeton University – an internationally recognized historian of subaltern histories from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Davis’ work has focused mostly on women, peasants and slaves – oppressed communities whose traces in history are hard to find and seldom retold. Not only do the persecuted have limited time, resources and wherewithal to record their histories and experiences in any organized way, institutional archives – if they have any materials at all relevant to subaltern histories – most often do not catalogue and index them in terms of their subaltern status, thus making even materials that have been preserved hard to locate.

Davis talked about the importance of both private archives and archives dedicated to marginalized or subaltern histories for the work of historians – family archives, private collections, and initiatives like Connexions – materials that if not informally saved would otherwise be lost. She described three such collections that have grown to international prominence: (1) the Schomburg Collection in the New York Public Library, the largest Black Culture archive in the world, which was started when Puerto Rican-born Black scholar and bibliophile, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, donated his private collection of books, manuscripts, etchings, paintings and pamphlets to the library. (2) the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, at the Tamiment Library, established in 1979, to preserve the historical records of the City’s trade union movement and labor heritage. (3) the Aletta Institute for Women’s History, in Amsterdam, that holds books, magazines, archives, works of music, photographs, posters, diaries, letters, all sorts of household and personal objects relevant to women and women’s lives.

Ulli Diemer from Connexions Archive spoke about the importance of activist histories.  Connexions started in 1975 as an information exchange group — folks from across Canada would send in their grassroots publications and Connexions would summarize and re-distribute stories that otherwise had no circulation.  At their pre-internet peak, they were circulating materials to over 2,000 subscribers.  Almost by default, the organization began to amass social movement literatures.  Connexions also published for a number of years a directory of activist and social justice organizations. Now, its focus is on maintaining and digitizing what is likely the largest alternative publication archive in Canada.  Diemer celebrates the transition to digital technologies (Connexions received over 75,000 visits a month to the online portion of its archive), but warns against being too complacent with how well new technologies serve archiving needs.  He showed the group a floppy disc, a digital cassette, and a few other older incarnations of digital storage now virtually unusable.  Digital technologies help with distribution, but preservation he warned remains a difficult and costly consideration.  Connexions is currently searching for a new home for its significant collection.

The other key theme of the night emerged in the Q & A afterwards: what to do with the private collections that exist right now – in garages, shoeboxes, trunks in basements, personal files. By hand count, three-quarters of the attendees at the meeting had their own collections they would like to donate to a larger collection. The question is: who will take them and how to store and manage them into the future? These are questions about resources and expertise. The discussion focused on the possibility of leveraging municipal assets like schools as storage facilities, or perhaps finding local philanthropists like the Mervish family who might have an interest in helping to preserve local history.

A working group was struck to keep the conversation going. For more information or to get involved contact Ulli Diemer at connexions[at]connexions.org.

This article first appeared on the Canadian Alternative Media Archive website.

Leave a reply