Observation at Interference Archive

By ktidwell

Over two weekends in March, I volunteered at the Interference Archive in Gowanus, Brooklyn, as part of an ongoing series of accessioning and cataloguing parties kicked off to handle one of the largest donations the archive has seen. In June 2016, the archive received Sean Stewart’s “‘Babylon Falling Collection’ of underground press and related ephemera” and began a long term project to accession Stewart’s donation. I heard about the accessioning parties through an SAA posting to the Pratt email list.

Interference Archive is a volunteer-run archive, gallery, and events space dedicated to the cultural production of social and resistance movements across the world, although the collection has greater representation from American and later 20th century and contemporary movements. I first visited the archive in 2014 for the opening of an exhibit about prison resistance movements. I had not visited since and I was nervous- I have only minor and non-traditional cataloguing experience, and, frankly, Interference Archive seems really cool. I shouldn’t have worried. The gathering was small, and the volunteer running the event, Charlie, was ready to show me everything I needed to know.

My apprehension was also rooted in the general assumption that archives are closed systems, even while I actively pursue an LIS degree. In “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory” (2002), Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook criticize (especially institutional) archives’ “professional myth of impartiality, neutrality, and objectivity.” Even knowing that Interference is an independent nonprofit, I was still cowed by the power and authority ascribed to record keepers. The last archive I worked in was largely closed to the public, though it received taxpayer funding and all of its content was contributed by community members. Interference Archive, however, is a very open system. Not only do they have fully open stacks- as I learned when spontaneous visitors wandered through the space during the accessioning party- but they welcome community volunteers. One of the most knowledgeable volunteers there was a high school-age intern, who worked alongside the more experienced volunteers with confidence and ownership. In addition, a book club was meeting in the gallery space both weekends, with their readings informed by materials from the archive. Interference Archive is a rejection of the phenomenon, described by Schwartz and Cook that, “what goes on in the archives remains remarkably unknown. Users of archives (historians and others) and shapers of archives (records creators, records managers, and archivists) add layers of meaning, layers which become naturalized, internalized, and unquestioned.” The archive also hosts events where anyone can come and produce the kind of protest ephemera- posters, buttons, etc- that they archive.  It lives the principles of information literacy outlined in “Information Literacy: A Contradictory Coupling” (2003) by Christine Pawley, that “information ‘access’ is not just about information consumerism but also about individuals and groups of people actively shaping their world as knowledge producers in a way that renders the consumer-producer dichotomy irrelevant.” It actively undercuts the secrecy and authority of traditional archives by making its work collaborative and accessible.

I spent about nine hours total slowly paging through back issues of the Industrial Worker, a publication published by the Industrial Workers of the World, labeling each issue and then entering them all into the archive’s CMS. Other publications in the new Babylon Falls collection are from the underground presses of the 1960s and 70s. Underground press is a perfect example of collaborative and volunteer-based cultural production that existed before the internet permitted wide-scale collaboration.

Interference Archive manages their metadata in the open source Collective Access browser platform and keeps an instructional wiki for volunteers. This seems appropriate both for their collaborative structure and their collection theme. For a non-profit archive with an all-volunteer staff, funding may be relatively low, but labor is relatively available, making the free but involved nature of open source a perfect match. Additionally, thanks to the open source movement, institutions like libraries and archives that have a professional democratic focus, and institutions with even more specific collections focus on things like collective action and popular movements, can extend those principles to the tools they use in their daily work. While Yochai Benkler (2006) calls the open-source movement “a new mode of production emerging in the middle of the most advanced economies in the world,” the way that open source supports existing volunteer-run workspaces shows how it also bolsters existing modes of production.  Archives like the Interference Archive or the Lesbian Herstory Archive, can be described as “a flourishing non-market sector of information, knowledge, and cultural production,” some of which existed long before Benkler used those words to describe open-source software. Their market participation in terms of rent and supplies is comparable to the baseline participation of open source coders who have to pay for the physical space and supplies they need to participate in online communities. Of course, as Benkler writes, the scale is significantly different.

Open source software complements existing non-market collaborations. And non-market non-digital collaborations contribute to open source digital projects. At the second session I attended, another volunteer was working in the shared space, preparing materials for a Wikipedia edit-a-thon. She was going through the archives’ materials, preparing them for other volunteers to consume and share on Wikipedia. Technology has changed the meaning of outreach for activism-minded archives from offering themselves as accessible resources to actively defining history and reality in shared digital space. This distinction between their digital catalogue and the edit-a-thon is an illustration of the two stage permeation of computers described by James H. Moor in his 2006 paper, “What is Computer Ethics?”. The former fits the “introduction stage,” where “computers are understood as tools for doing standard jobs.” The latter represents “the permeation stage,” where “computers become an integral part of the activity.” An open source encyclopedia like Wikipedia has changed the reality of contribution to common record for “outsider”, or at least non-governmental, organizations.

I observed one small limitation of Collective Access that is not easily fixed with the limitations of an all volunteer staff. In the field for entering serial issues, each issue had to be entered chronologically- there was no support for sorting by date within the field. If an issue was discovered out of order, you could either delete all the entries up to that date and then enter the new issue and re-enter the others, or enter it at the end, permanently out of order. This also necessitates meticulously ordering all issues before beginning the process of cataloguing them, which, while I enjoyed the chance to look over the Industrial Worker a few times, cumulatively uses time that would not be necessary with a sort function. While this problem seems solvable with available technology, each minor solution takes time and technological know-how from volunteers. This is a minor drawback. Overall, Collective Access is flexible and customizable, and Interference Archive appears to have consistent volunteers.

 

Since volunteering, I have remained on the email list for volunteers. I have not made it back to the archive yet, but I plan to return soon (probably when this semester is over). Observing and participating in an archive that turns the traditional power structures of archives on its head fundamentally changed the way that I imagine archives can work.

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Benkler, Y. (2006). The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Yale University Press.

Pawley, C. (2003), Information Literacy: A Contradictory Coupling. Library Quarterly, 73(4), 422–52.

Moor, J. H. (1985). What is Computer Ethics? Metaphilosophy, 16(4), 266–275.

Schwartz, J. M., & Cook, T. (2002). Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory. Archival Science, 2(1/2), 1-19.

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