“Archives, Advocacy and Change” at the New York Academy of Medicine

By theo_walther

“The archivist, even more than the historian and the political scientist, tends to be scrupulous about his neutrality, and to see his job as a technical job, free from the nasty world of political interest: a job of collecting, sorting, preserving, making available, the records of the society. But I will stick by what I have said about other scholars, and argue that the archivist, in subtle ways, tends to perpetuate the political and economic status quo simply by going about his ordinary business. His supposed neutrality is, in other words, a fake.”[1]

It was with this quote from historian Howard Zinn that Anne Garner, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts in the Library at the New York Academy of Medicine began the recent panel discussion there entitled “Archives, Advocacy and Change: Tales from Four New York City Collections.”

The discussion featured four panelists: Jenna Freedman, founder, curator, and cataloger of the Barnard Zine Library; Steven Fullwood, founder of the “In the Life Archive,” an initiative to collect, preserve, catalog, and make available materials produced by and about LGBTQ people of African descent at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library; Timothy Johnson, director of New York University’s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, as well as co-director of Tamiment’s Center for the United States and the Cold War; and Rich Wandel, Center Archivist and Historian at The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center National History Archive.

While the first three panelists provided brief presentations on the histories of their collections, the materials they contain, and their individual collection practices, surprisingly, it wasn’t until the final panelist, Rich Wandel, that someone spoke directly to Zinn’s criticism of archivists. And Wandel wasted no time, starting off by declaring that “the archival profession is inherently an activist profession.” It was only after this declaration that the discussion of the archives as a location for advocacy and change (reflected in the title of the program and presumably the reason for Garner’s provocative quotation of Zinn) began in earnest.

However, Zinn’s characterization of the supposed neutrality of archivists as “fake” was in no way a dismissal of the archivist. Rather it was an attempt to convince the archivist of their power, a power Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook describe in their article “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory” as the power “to shape our notions of history, identity, and memory.”[2] Indeed, Zinn went on to urge archivists to use that power “to compile a whole new world of documentary material, about the lives, desires, needs, of ordinary people.” Doing so would ensure “that the condition, the grievances, the will of the underclasses become a force in the nation.”[3] It is therefore in the material they choose to collect, highlight, and disseminate that these four panelists exert their power as archivists.

As a gay man in New York City involved in the gay rights movement since the first Christopher Street Liberation Day March in June 1970, Wandel said it’s often easy to take for granted and forget just how far the LGBTQ movement has come. At the same time, he said it’s also easy to forget how there are still many places in America where LGBTQ youth are repeatedly told by their communities and even their families that they’re different, that there’s something wrong or even immoral about them. The archives are important to the entire LGBTQ community, but they are especially important to these LGBTQ youth. It lets them know they’re not alone, not the only ones who feel as they do, and most importantly, it “lets them know they’re worth something.”

Just as Emily Drabinski stressed the importance of librarians being “ethically and politically engaged on behalf of marginal knowledge formations and identities who quite reasonably expect to be able to locate themselves in the library”[4] with regard to classification and cataloging, Wandel stressed the importance of the archives as a way for people, especially LGBTQ people, to “find themselves in history.” In this case, it’s not only important that the material is archived for history, but that it’s made available to the LGBTQ community and the public.

Through the lens of Wandel’s passionate advocacy of the archivist as an activist, it was possible to go back to the presentations of the first three panelists and see where that activism was present, even if it wasn’t at first readily apparent. Steven Fullwood grew up in Toledo, Ohio as one of those LGBTQ youth Wandel described; being told that he was different (as both gay and black), that there was something wrong with him, and feeling he was the only one who felt as he did. He eventually made his way to New York and a job at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library in 1998. Having noticed a lack of materials being collected about black gays and lesbians, Fullwood founded the “In the Life Archive” in 1999 at Schomburg. It was the first archive of its kind and later expanded to include materials by and about all LGBTQ people of African descent. As it stands, it is the largest black LGBTQ archive at a public institution.

While Schwartz and Cook mention the “variety of subaltern groups desiring to construct a viable, authentic, and cohesive identity,” Fullwood spoke about his initial difficulties in convincing people to donate their materials to the “In the Life Archive.”[5] He said he was often met with surprise (“Why would you even want that?”) as people didn’t realize that what they had was both important and historic. However, as Fullwood became increasingly active and well known within the black LGBTQ community in Harlem, he was able to develop personal relationships with individuals and groups, eventually serving as a kind of “conduit” for the community into the archives. Those who were initially surprised or even suspicious have now seen their identity “confirmed and justified as historical documents validate with all their authority as ‘evidence’ the identity stories so built.”[6]

Jenna Freedman also spoke to involving the community in developing the archives but from a slightly different perspective than that of Steven Fullwood. Although Freedman was a zinester (a person who creates zines, or self-published works of appropriated texts and images reproduced by photocopier and originating in the do-it-yourself ethos of the punk rock subculture) before arriving at the Barnard College Library, she “surveyed” the Barnard community in an attempt to discover what they felt they needed in order to “serve the community.” The result of this survey was the creation of a library focused on zines produced by cis- and transgender women (Barnard admitted transgender women for the first time in 2015), with an emphasis on those created by women of color.

However, Friedman quickly found herself running afoul of what Schwartz and Cook describe as one of the sources of “power over the documentary record, and by extension over the collective memory of marginalized members of society.” That is the institution and by extension “the ways in which institutional resources are allotted.”[7] As zines often contain explicit or sexual material, Freedman often found her Zine Library questioned or even threatened by the administration of the college. However, she emphasized that it was essential for her to privilege the subject and not what was considered acceptable, either socially or to the institution. Fortunately, despite some early conflicts, Freedman and the Zine Library have not only survived but grown into a collection of over 7,000 zines.

At first, Timothy Johnson seemed a bit of an outlier in this particular panel discussion as the Tamiment Library doesn’t have any obvious connections to groups marginalized based on sexual orientation. However, the Tamiment and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives give voice to those marginalized due to their involvement in radical politics, labor movements, civil rights, and civil liberties.

It was in talking about the Tamiment’s collection of materials related to the Occupy Wall Street movement that Johnson provided a candid example of the power of the archivist. The Tamiment currently houses the largest collection of such material in the world; over 80 linear feet worth. It is a result of a serendipitous situation in which two library science students working at the Tamiment and involved in the protests realized the opportunity as well as the need to collect and preserve as much material as possible. When Anne Garner asked Johnson whether the Tamiment had also collected material from Chase Bank to present the opposing view to the Occupy movement, Johnson responded that the Tamiment’s mission is to give ay voice to the oppressed, not the ones doing the oppressing. With his brief rejoinder, Johnson reminded the audience of the archives origin as being “established by the powerful to protect or enhance their position in society” and that the goal of the activist archivist goal is to subvert that power.[8]

While Schwartz and Cook echo Howard Zinn’s criticism of archivists in citing the “professional myth of impartiality, neutrality, and objectivity,” they also echo Zinn’s challenge in stating that “the point is for archivists to (re)search thoroughly for the missing voices…so that archives can acquire and reflect multiple voices, and not, by default, only the voices of the powerful.”[9] If Zinn, Schwartz, and Cook were present at the recent panel discussion at the New York Academy of Medicine, I think they would find that both their criticisms of and challenges to archivists continue to be taken seriously.


[1] Zinn, Howard. “Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest.” The Midwestern Archivist 2, no. 2 (1977): 14-26. Accessed November 3, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41101382.

[2] Schwartz, Joan M., and Terry Cook. “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science 2, no. 1 (March 2002): 1-19.

[3] Zinn, Howard. “Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest.” The Midwestern Archivist 2, no. 2 (1977): 14-26. Accessed November 3, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41101382.

[4] Drabinski, Emily. “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 83, no. 2 (April 2013): 94-111. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/669547.

[5] Schwartz, Joan M., and Terry Cook. “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science 2, no. 1 (March 2002): 1-19.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

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