This weekend, I observed and participated in a cataloging party at Interference Archive in Park Slope. According to their website (2018):
The mission of Interference Archive is to explore the relationship between cultural production and social movements. This work manifests in an open stacks archival collection, publications, a study center, and public programs including exhibitions, workshops, talks, and screenings, all of which encourage critical and creative engagement with the rich history of social movements.
Interference Archive (IA) is a fully volunteer-run and non-hierarchical organization, getting things done by way of working groups and effective communication, mainly via Basecamp and a Google listserv. The cataloging working group, for example, organizes semi-regular ‘parties’ where volunteers meet for several hours to create catalog records accessible through the organization’s public website. Most volunteers are local to New York City, though some commute from out of town to staff the archive or participate in events, and they include library and information professionals, artists, activists, and folks who are generally fascinated by social movements and believe that these materials can be used to inspire further social transformation. I count myself among this last category.
One thing that makes IA unusual as an archive is the open stacks structure. Any person who enters the archive during open hours is free to browse any materials on their own and to take pictures. The only instructions, highlighted on useful signs throughout the archive in both English and Spanish, are to handle the items with care (e.g., wash your hands first, lay larger items like posters on flat surfaces) and to avoid taking pictures of other visitors without their consent. Based on my own experience in staffing as well as reading the volunteer logs posted on Basecamp after each shift, visitors range from curious passersby to scholars looking for specific materials to college classes visiting with their professors. Volunteers are on hand to help point visitors in the right direction, and those who have been volunteering for years may have deep knowledge of the archive’s holdings, but this is really an archive without an archivist.
My own participation in cataloging on Saturday is a testament to this fact. When I arrived, I learned that we would be cataloging newspapers from a large donation. These objects had already been accessioned – assigned an ID with the year of the donation and a unique lot number, and listed on a shared spreadsheet with the item’s location and group-level descriptions – and our task was to record them using the cataloging program Collective Access. After creating a new account for me on Collective Access, two volunteers patiently walked me through the next steps. Because we were dealing with newspapers, the catalog records were series-level, so we created one entry for each newspaper title and then listed the volume or issue number and date of publication for each individual newspaper held in the collection. We used WorldCat and Wikipedia to research background information on the series like the run of publication, former or alternate names, and creators and contributors. We also used online information to create a general, text-searchable description field in the catalog record, and we took low-resolution photos to attach to each record. In the three hours that I was at the archive, I cataloged about a dozen newspapers under three different titles.
Objects at IA are sorted by format, and then further organized either alphabetically (in the case of serials, newspapers, and zines) or by subject (in the case of ephemera, posters, books, pamphlets, and vinyl records). One of the volunteers explained that a reason we prioritized cataloging newspapers over some other formats is that it’s harder to find what one is looking for alphabetically, so cataloging with subject terms and cross-references is much more helpful. For example, if a researcher is interested in the Black Panther Party, it would be simple enough to browse through pamphlets and posters under the Black Panther subject heading, but they might not know to look through the newspapers alphabetically for Space City!, a Houston-based underground newspaper that I cataloged which extensively covered the Black Panther movement.
On the topic of subject terms, I was encouraged to use WorldCat subject headings as suggestions or jumping-off points, but one volunteer explained that the organization has elected not to use Library of Congress Subject Headings as an authority source because of how problematic they can be, especially as they pertain to more radical subjects, and they may not be in line with how the objects’ creators or the people who donated these objects would want them described. While this type of work takes place outside of the critical cataloging movement, which alternately attempts to correct biased information or engage pedagogically with the existing biased terms of the LCSH (Drabinski, 2013), I think it is a useful principled stand that sympathizes with the goals of critical cataloging. Attempts are made to describe objects in a straightforward and respectful fashion that is not subject to review by any authority source, but it’s also important to remember that even if only subconsciously, “all archivists bring assumptions, identities, and experiences to the task of description” (Caswell, 2016, p.19). I believe IA’s nature as a collective of pseudo-archivists with varying perspectives provides a powerful check to this issue, but it should not be ignored.
Another key theoretical concept in archives that plays out in an interesting way at IA is provenance. As noted above, information about donors is recorded and enshrined in cataloging records, but there is not really a concern for original order. An individual’s collection can be reconstructed digitally once it is fully cataloged, but it does not inform the way objects are physically organized. I think that Caswell’s (2016) proposed re-conception of provenance as “an ever-changing, infinitely evolving process of recontextualization” that takes into account creators, archivists, and users (p. 13) is particularly apt. That a person chose to donate their objects to a community archive, instead of a museum or more traditional archive, certainly says something about the object itself.
Cataloging at Interference Archive was a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon and to learn more about some of the objects in this collection. In the few months since I’ve gotten involved at IA, it has truly surprised me how productive and organized a group of volunteers can be, especially when they are not motivated by a time-sensitive or political goal (such as an election campaign). In its task of collecting of radical materials, IA takes a unconventional approach to the task of archiving, which suits its purposes and provides a useful model for organizations with similar goals.
Caswell, Michelle (2016). ‘The Archive’ Is Not an Archive: On Acknowledging the Intellectual Contributions of Archival Studies. Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture, 16(1). Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/7bn4v1fk
Drabinski, Emily (2013). Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83(2), 94-111. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/669547
Interference Archive (2018). Our Mission [web page]. Retrieved from http://interferencearchive.org/our-mission/