Lost in the Archives

Library reading room at the Wisconsin Historical Society
Library reading room at the Wisconsin Historical Society

Madison   Somehow I thought a week would be more than enough to go through the ACORN archives at the Wisconsin State Historical Society in Madison, Wisconsin. Now at the midpoint I feel like I’m trapped somewhere between 1970 and 1985 and can’t get out for the life of me. It’s all a unique, interesting, somewhat unsettling, and bizarre experience.

Going into the archive waiting and working area is a little like being a visitor in a jail. You sign in and show your ID, logging your time of entry. You have to lock up your belongings in a locker or closet. They don’t exactly frisk you for sharp objects, but they definitely require you to stow your pens and issue you a pencil if you must write something down. In a funny way it makes sense of course. They don’t want folks to walk away with historical documents that they are storing for safekeeping obviously, nor do they want them defaced or marked. To keep the prison analogy going you also have to put in a request to see a specific box, which they then disappear into the bottom floors of the building and return later and issue to you.

Around 1990 when I had a brief stay as the “activist in residence” for almost a month at the University of Wisconsin, and my friend and comrade, Professor Joel Rogers, introduced me to the people at the society because they had a renowned “Social Change Collection.” Many of the civil rights organizations had their records here. I knew the National Welfare Rights Organization, where I had once worked, had their records here. The famous Highlander Center in Tennessee had all of their records here. I had also had no success in reaching out to the University of Arkansas or their branch in Little Rock to get them to agree to take ACORN’s records with any interest and the same story had been repeated at the University of New Orleans. The final deciding point had been that the historical society was funded directly by the state legislature and in 1990 that sealed the deal because it seemed in the pre-Walker era to mean that they would always receive adequate support to maintain the records, which is a must for archives.

Once the deal was made, we would start shipping records up to them via UPS, but I had never actually been back to see what was happening or how the whole thing was set up. I was here now thinking I could go through them somewhat quickly and gather material for a book of “readings” collected from old memoranda and reports that would give an original source look at how ACORN had been built and operated. It’s turning out to be a much harder task than I had imagined. The records are kept based on when they are received, so I’m trapped in boxes and boxes from the first 15 years. The database doesn’t even acknowledge any records from 2008 on, because they still have not been accessed into the system. Of course since the records came from many different locations and the idiosyncratic filing or non-filing system of many field offices, organizers, researchers, lawyers, and others, there are duplications galore and trails that dead end quickly.

None of that is the fault of the collection or the archivist here, but for my task it’s all somewhat frustrating. Finding something interesting means walking over to the scanner and putting the document through page by page so that it emerges as a PDF on a thumbdrive. Then a record of the file needs to be typed in the computer with a title, the file needs to be labeled accordingly on the drive, and transferred to a larger hard drive. You get the picture?

So, I have two days left now, and I’m already reassessing and doing triage to see whether there’s a way to move more quickly or stay the course, box by box. At some point just like reading the newspaper, I’ll just have to look for the pictures to tell another story.

Making history is one thing, but leaving records so that the history can be assembled at some point is quite another I’m finding.