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.

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Emails, Internet, and Lost History

storageMadison    Huma Abedin, the confidant and deputy chief of staff for Hillary Clinton, now working on her Presidential campaign, in her deposition released recently in commenting on the server controversy said, “Mrs. Clinton…wanted to protect her personal information, ‘just like anybody who has personal email would want to keep their personal email private.” It’s an interesting quote, not because of the controversy, but because in fact it so easily expresses and assumes a near unanimous consensus that exists in much of modern society that holds that there is a dividing line between personal and professional correspondence. In Clinton’s case, the argument of course has to do with matters of state, while for the rest of us everything is often totally blurred.

I thought of this as I continued rummaging through the ACORN archives at the Wisconsin Historical Society. There would be few files these days called “Correspondence,” given the dominance of email. In the files, I read letters to me from Ralph Nader, Paul Wellstone, and Bill Clinton among others that I had long forgotten existed. And, trust me on this my files – our files – were none too perfect, but such correspondence would largely be lost in the mess and mayhem of unfathomable, untraceable email these days, as Abedin notes about Hillary Clinton wouldn’t they?

Working with the Wisconsin archivists they came to our union hall in Baton Rouge some months ago and in three days sorted through more than one-hundred boxes stored there in order to ship back 38 of them to the archives. Dealing with paper is no treat. Looking at the ACORN archives, nothing has been sorted and available really since 2008. Of more than 300 linear feet or boxes of material only three were of photographs and half of those were more random than anything else, yet we all have thousands of photos on our computers in some willy-nilly fashion. I looked at various internal communications tools we used, Vamonos for leaders, the ACORNizer for organizers, the Motley Cow reports from the research department. I saw a note about our purchasing computers in 1984 and then of course by 1990 email ubiquitous, so over the last 20 or 25 years so many of these kinds of communication would be electronic. How can those be accessed? Who is retaining such records? And, what about the way we all communicate using websites, Facebook, and other tools?

All of our footprints are in sand, but modern communication potentially puts much of it literally in the clouds. Is this the end of history when there are few and increasingly eliminated records available for review except from the highest and mightiest?

What about the rest of us? Are we destined to live in a Trump-type world where we invent ourselves every day and there are no facts or solid ground where we stand?

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