Lost in the Stacks


Madison    It was the right thing to do.  Make a plan to try and retain records from the ACORN family of organizations in some professionally maintained archives before in the shuffling from office to office, here to there, we lost everything.  We had tried to interest the University of Arkansas at both Fayetteville and Little Rock.  No luck.  We had tried to see if the University of New Orleans might be a location.  No capacity.  We talked to the Little Rock Public Library, but in the days before they became the giant, well-funded Central Arkansas Library System (CALS), they didn’t see a way forward.  We ended up in the Social Change Collection, as it was called then, at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, Wisconsin.  We felt like that was good company with the records of SNCC, NWRO, the Highlander Center, and many others.

Having tried to dive in some years ago for a week and finding the task daunting, I had been humbled by the size of the collection now.  Another brief visit in December 2018, reminded me that unless I had months to spare, the task was impossible.  With the 50th anniversary of ACORN coming up in 2020, I knew we had to scale this mountain, so I stumbled on trying to recruit an “Archives Assault Team,” and managed to get Mary Rowles, recently retired from the British Columbia Government Employees Union, Fred Brooks, still a professor at Georgia State, and Dan Russell, a retired professor from Springfield College in Massachusetts to join the group.  Beth Butler from A Community Voice was gang pressed into service, and I rounded off the list, toggling between my work in Milwaukee with Amani United.

We’re deep in the boxes now, but thirty boxes in after two days, we’ve had to narrow our mission daily to try to skim through as much as possible, skipping over most of the labor files, breezing through the media work, and concentrating on ACORN to see if we can pull out valuable memoranda for a “readings” book that would give a open window into ACORN’s process and production.  Sometimes we get lost in the weeds.  Flyers catch the eye.  A piece of internal conflict that had been forgotten is once again revealed.  A plaintive, lengthy letter on a diminishing commitment resurfaces.  A back-and-forth on a decision emerges that had reverberations over decades.  Is any of that what we hoped to find?  I’m not sure, but it educates anyway.

There’s some humor.  An ill-tempered exchange that makes one wince.  One of the team asking if we should care if a document was marked “confidential,” and then realizing that if it’s in the archives, it’s now part of the historical record.  Talking to the presiding archivist, he counsels that I should not tell the team that there are more than one-million pages in the ACORN archives.  He says that when I use 250 cartons as the collection estimate, I’m low-balling.

What can we do but continue to burrow in and hope to bring the gold back to the surface and separate it from so much rock.


Please enjoy Kelsey Waldon’s Anyhow

Thanks to KABF.