Want to Preserve Your History Collection?

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As advocates who were involved in the disability rights movement in past decades begin to age, we are seeing the need to collect and archive the materials they have saved - the buttons, posters, pamphlets, memos, articles, flyers, etc. These materials help tell the story of the movement. Yet many people do not know how to archive their materials. They may not even know if their materials are important or useful. In this article, Rob Cox, a special collections librarian who has worked with many disability collections, answers some of the questions that people may have.
a sample of historical materials

Collecting disability: Four Secrets of the Archives

by Rob Cox, Special Collections and University Archives, UMass Amherst Libraries

In their poetical moments, historians sometimes refer to their work as archaeology, as an exercise in sifting the layers of time for small bits of past lives and bygone communities. Perhaps it is envy that leads them to look longingly at archaeologists -- after all Indiana Jones has a better press agent than most historians-- but in one respect, their work truly is the same. Whichever calling they pursue, historians and archaeologists both become expert in handling evidence that can be frustratingly faulty, sparse, and radically incomplete. As much as we may complain about the proliferation of paper in modern bureaucracies, we frequently confront a record of gaps and silences, silences that fall predictably and heavily upon the lives of women, children, minorities, the poor, and on persons of lesser social power. For all the reams of foolscap that have ever been filled, there is that much more that was never written down. For all that has ever been written, only the smallest fraction ever finds an archival home. 

Examined more closely, though, history and archaeology diverge in important ways, and historians -- some, at least -- turn out to hold a key advantage. While the materials that preoccupy archaeologists have typically been winnowed by the whims of time, historians of the recent past have the option of taking time in their own hands by conspiring directly with the people they study. In case after case, historians, archivists, and communities have shown the ability to collaborate to gather and carefully preserve records that would otherwise have been lost, filling in the gaps of the historical record to ensure that it better reflects the diversity of contemporary cultures. Together, we can create an historical record in which voices ring out over silence. 

A quarter century after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we find ourselves in just such a position. As the disability rights movement has staked its claim in the American public sphere, historians are taking up the challenges of the subject, writing about disability as both experience and movement. It is an extraordinary topic, broad and highly diverse, complex and dynamic, and by any measure, profound. But for researchers, the topic remains a challenge, if only because until recently disability was barely represented in archives, barely conceived of as a subject for documentation. Relative to its importance, it is a topic that has been nearly invisible, and if we are to address the problem, we need to act now. For all its successes and all that remains before it, the disability rights movement has arrived to a point where its pioneers are exiting, with political leaders such as Fred Fay, Judi Chamberlin, Ed Roberts, Frank Bowe, and Justin Dart passing within just the past few years.  We are also losing cultural leaders such as Paul Kahn and Cheryl Marie Wade, who have paved the way for a disability rights consciousness in the arts and emergence of disability pride and culture. Without concerted effort to preserve the legacy of their generation, without active collaboration between motivated parties to tell the whole story, and to tell their story, we stand to lose the tangible memory of the rise of the movement and to bury a testament to the struggles and triumphs of a generation.
    
To understand the experience of disability in America, to understand the disability rights movement and what it has meant to the lives of millions of Americans and to the political culture of our nation, to understand how we have gotten where we are today, the voices that made the movement are essential. Most importantly, as we look forward, these voices need not only to be preserved, but heard. Here is the first professional secret of archives: archives are not about the past, or what has worked and not worked; they are about interpreting the past in all its unreasonable confusion so that we can hazard a way into the future. 

Am I right for an archive?
    
If you are considering collaborating with an archive to preserve a record of your work, a few general considerations may help guide you along the path. Archival collections vary widely in content, containing anything from personal letters, email, and diaries to photographs, speeches, and articles; from personal electronic files to items as public as posters and placards from a demonstration. Organizational records are similarly diverse, containing minutes and notes from board meetings, white papers, accounting ledgers, phone logs, strategic reports, and much more. Archives are such a hodgepodge that librarians have surrendered their efforts to categorize them, a hard admission for their categorical minds, labeling archival collections simply as “mixed material.” 
    
It is important to recognize that the range of what archives contain is intrinsic to their importance for historians. Typically, archival collections document events as they occur and not in some retrospective moment, but since they contain so many different types of materials composed for so many different purposes and audiences, archives provide an extraordinary opportunity to study a range of points of view. They are particularly important for their uniqueness. Unlike books, where many copies circulate at a time, items in archival collections are mostly, or nearly, unique: a diary or letter sent is rarely duplicated and even in the case of organizational records (at least for smaller non-profits) duplicates are scarce. As a result, it is essential for the would-be preserver of records to proceed carefully. A single accident or careless moment can result in the loss of valuable material and all that material uniquely contains. With barely a prompt, any archivist will launch into a dreary litany of things lost to flood, fire, or accident, to a zealous house cleaning or a child who simply did not care about a parent’s old paper and outdated computer files. 
    
The need to intervene and preserve archival collections is hardly unique to disability. Quite the contrary, intervention is the norm. At UMass where our collecting focus falls on the history and experience of social change, we encounter many activists who discover too late that they have failed to document their most significant work. Often, activists are just too active to assemble the paper trail that historians would like, or they may find themselves unable to do so due to circumstances beyond their control. The great antiwar activist Carl Oglesby explained that his work was so poorly recorded because he was on the road continuously for five years, after which he passed through a period when he lived, quite literally, in a chicken coop in Vermont. Chicken coops are not known for being spacious. For another activist, George Markham, it was a different issue that led to underdocumentating his career. A radical labor organizer who was pilloried before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Markham remarked, “When you’ve been through what I’ve been through, you learn not to leave a paper trail.” 
    
Given such realities, one could say that archivists need to grab documentation where we can. So we do. Archivists are constantly on the lookout for people whose lives and work might represent something of interest to students of history and culture and they are constantly searching for people who may have kept “stuff” that documents interesting events and ideas. Even the most down-to-earth things have real value for history. Yes, a movement’s leaders, theorists, and strategists, and the powerful members of society are natural points for an archive to document because almost by definition, they are influential. But not infrequently, the richest material is found in the papers of the less renowned and the rank and file. Often, these are the people who have the time and space to match their inclination to preserve a record of the great events in which they have taken part. More importantly, the rank and file are worthy of documentation in their own right precisely because their perspective on events is inherently different from that of the leadership. One would never think of writing a history of Catholicism in America by consulting only the papers of cardinals and popes, so when archivists document a movement, they do so by reaching out across the spectrum from organizer to organized. 
    
Applying the same logic, many archivists (not all) will aim for the broadest possible coverage of an individual’s life. The motto we have adopted at UMass is “whole lives, whole communities”: our goal is to view not only that narrow slice of a person’s life that deals with their activism, but rather the whole life, convinced that to view the activism out of the context of the rest of the life is to seriously distort the historical record. Childhood, friends, schooling, and other activities all shed light on how people became involved in movements for social justice, and their other involvements shed light too. We are equally strong believers in reaching out to document the community of people with whom an activist works. The goal of every archivist is to build a richly textured, richly interconnected body of records that provides historians with the material basis to explore not merely what occurred in the past, but how it occurred; not merely the events, but the ideas behind the events. Historians want to see the nitty-gritty of how decisions were made and how the outcomes affected people; they want to delve into motivations, influences, and strategies as much as the facts of chronology. I would be remiss not to point out that activists themselves are users of archives for the precisely same reasons: they want to know about the past in order to learn how to inspire new generations to alter the future world for the better. 
    
This is the second great secret of archives: archives are not just about preserving a record of human activity; they are about making that record available. To the public, archives seem dusty and remote, when in fact they strive for the opposite. Archives exist for one reason: to open the past -- widely -- to anyone who can benefit from it. For an archivist, knowledge must not only be preserved, it must be active, it must be made active, it must be made useful.

Is my stuff right for an archive?
    
Deciding what should become part of a collection is one of the weightiest decisions an archivist makes. The diversity of archival collections means that almost anything can be included, but the demands of space and finances and the goal of activating collections puts a curb on our hording instincts. Discarding anything, of course, has a potential impact on the historical record we are shaping, and not every archivist will agree on the best strategy for what to keep. While no archivists takes the decision lightly, some are innately inclusive (let’s avoid saying retentive) while others enjoy paring to the bone. None of us can afford to keep it all. Only rarely will archivists keep more than a single copy when duplicates exist, and materials that are easily available in print or in other archives are at best less desirable. Entire categories of materials are usually regarded as having lesser value for historians, so that receipts, invoices, canceled checks, and newspaper or magazine clippings typically fall into the reject pile. Finally, archivists carve out a special category for exclusion that includes materials that are actively being used by the donor: these may eventually be added to the archive, but it only makes sense for the donor to retain items that are in regular use. 
    
With this in mind, some donors ask whether they should organize their papers before sending them archive-ward, and whether they should dispose of unwanted things. A few archives will ask them to do so, for sure, but others -- UMass among them -- prefer to do the work themselves, seeing it as one way to bring value to the collaboration. Perhaps the best advice is to consult with an archivist before making any decision. One area where all archivists agree, however, is that we need to work closely with our collaborators to identify anything that may violate a person’s privacy or that may impinge on confidentiality agreements. In most cases, the knowledge a donor brings is critical to preventing sensitive, but historically significant material from exposure, and although the issues can be complicated, archivists have means for protecting privacy. As long as the sensitive material can be clearly located, it can be withheld from researchers until a specified time -- perhaps years away -- when the sensitivity will have passed. In rare cases, when the sensitivity is particularly acute and long-standing, it may be necessary to exclude the materials from the collection altogether. Medical records, personnel files, and attorney-client information are of particular concern, particularly when they reveal information about third parties (i.e., parties other than the donor), but the best course, as always, is to work with an archivist to ensure that all ethical obligations are met.
    
In making retention decisions, archivists follow a calculus that considers the documentary or informational value of the material, its uniqueness, its likelihood of being used by researchers, and the amount of space and other resources required to preserve and activate it. In other words, archivists make an estimate of bang for the buck. We have long experience with assessing researchers’ needs to guide us, and we know with some certainty that certain types of records are particularly valued, especially those that convey the emotions, impact, and details of events, those that contain information that is difficult to locate in the formal, published record, and materials that provide significant context. Letters and diaries merit special notice, for example, because they reflect a person’s thoughts at the moment the events are transpiring, and as they say, photographs speak a thousand words. For organizations, the picture is similar: records that offer insight into the myriad behind-the-scenes discussions and negotiations that make up a movement are highly prized wherever found, because they allow historians to see how the sausage is metaphorically made. 
    
And this is the third archival secret: although we are public institutions, archivists search specially for materials that record personal perspective, that reveal what individuals felt and experienced, rather than just an official or “authorized” view. We carry our own baggage through life, and since two people, side by side, can have drastically different impressions of what transpired at a single event, historians prize the ability to see as many unique perspectives as possible. 

Is an archive right for me?
    
To put a fine point on it, American archives are distinctly American, and as such, there is no such thing as central planning and no single place where any single collection uniquely belongs. It is all about fit. Outside of governmental and most corporate archives, where legal and organizational mandates apply, it is up to the donor to choose where a collection should go and up to the archive to say yea or nay when approached. Deciding where to approach, however, is no easy task, and is the most critical decision a donor makes in preserving his or her legacy.
    
Complicating matters is the fact that archives overlap in what they collect and how they collect it, and even though there are strong national standards for the profession, archives apply those standards in different ways. It may seem chaotic -- it is -- but within the chaos are some tendencies that may help guide prospective donors. To begin with, archives organize their collecting activities in any one of three ways: collecting only those things that pertain to our parent institution, to a specific geographic area, or to a core set of themes or topics. Archivists try not to stray from their collecting mission, and as slim as they often are, these rubrics -- the institution, the region, or the idea -- mean that archivists often reject materials that fall “outside the scope” (in such cases, most archivists will suggest a more appropriate home). The goal is not to build a bulky archive, but one with rich documentation, and it takes a well-crafted collecting policy to create collections that harmonize and that create the potential for synergies in research. 
    
A prospective donor, then, may first wish to inspect an archive’s intellectual neighborhood thoroughly, finding out what other collections live there in order to determine how well their papers would fit. In some sense, the context an archive provides is the context in which a collection will be viewed. It is easy to overstate, but a collection placed in an archive that collects only materials from Walla Walla, for instance, will be seen primarily as an extension of Walla Walla, while the same collection placed at UMass will be seen with respect to the focal point of our collections, social change. Each approach to collecting has advantages and disadvantages, but donors should become familiar with what an archive values and should consider where they feel most at home. For disability, the options are only increasing. In the past decade, a handful of archives have begun to integrate the history of disability and disability rights into their collecting mission. In addition to UMass’s focus on disability in the context of social change and social justice, the University of California Berkeley has the papers of Fred Fay, materials relating to the Independent Living movement, and excellent oral history collections; Gallaudet University and the Perkins School for the Blind have excellent archives for the histories of their own institutions and the topic of deafness and blindness respectively; the University of Toledo collects regionally in disability history; and the University of Georgia is host to the Americans With Disabilities Act Legacy Project. 
    
In thinking about neighborhood, a donor may wish to consider the equivalent of the home owners’ association: each archive has its own personality. Since every donation marks the beginning of a relationship, not the culmination, the archive itself will be an ongoing presence. Large or small, active or sleepy, elitist or populist, staid and stodgy or fast and freewheeling, archives are as varied as the people who work in them, and although some archivists are loath to admit it, our personality quirks can shade how collections are handled. Nearly all professionally-staffed archives offer sound, long-term care, controlling factors such as temperature, humidity, and housing that affect a collection’s longevity, but from there, we deviate considerably. 
    
Even our approach to something as fundamental as preparing a collection for research use varies widely. Nearly every archivist would agree that newly-arrived collections need to be organized and arranged (“processed”) before they can be used efficiently for research, but few of us take the same path to processing. Some archives are quick to do the work, others slow, and some will completely refrain from making a collection available for research until processing is complete while others will rush them into use. Some archives have an intense focus on serving advanced researchers, others focus on students or the “general public,” but perhaps the greatest area of difference among archives is found in how they describe collections under their care -- and because the description is how a collection is discovered by researchers, it is a make or break proposition. Archivists place different levels of emphasis on how thoroughly collections should be described, with some advocating for quick, minimal description and others for more extended, robust treatment. At UMass, we view processing as a process: beginning with a brief description that is made available to the public immediately, we work successively toward more intensive levels of description as time, staffing, and funding permit. Because the internet is now the primary means by which collections are discovered, it is important for donors to scrutinize an archive’s website closely: is it up to date, attractive, easy to use, and comprehensive?  Does it reflect the values and ideas of the donor?  Does the archive offer significant digital collections, which are the best way to get a collection in front of a researcher?
    
Here we come to the final secret of archives: your perspective not only matters, it is essential. In the end, the archives is you. Your willingness to collaborate with archivists and historians is essential to enabling them to do what they do, just as their work is essential to preserving your legacy. Where will you fit?  You decide.