julia foulkes

Democratizing the Archives

Co-authored with Claire Potter

What’s in an archive? This was the question that brought Claire Potter’s class, “New York Activists and Their Worlds, 1968-2000,” to the Manuscripts and Archives Division at the New York Public Library (NYPL) on February 19 for the first of several workshops. After a few lessons on how to behave—checking our coats, washing our hands, and keeping things in order—Thomas Lannon, Assistant Curator, began to dip into boxes. During this first workshop, students were able to view a photo album of gay writer and activist David Feinberg. Preserved for their enduring value, photos in the album are as Feinberg left them, unlabeled and undated. The class also looked at clips of ACT-UP oral histories, and learned how to navigate the Library’s finding aids as guides to additional archival collections.

This and two other classes this semester, Julia Foulkes’ “U.S. History in 13 Acts” and Ricardo Montez’s “Documentary and the Ethics of Representation,” are part of a group of NSPE faculty supported by a Dean’s grant for Civic Engagement. The project, called “Democratizing the Archives,” has teamed up with Lannon and independent scholar Jonathan Ned Katz of Outhistory.org, to bring the remnants of the past into the digital age and to reveal the multiple uses of archival material for public debate by publishing archival items online, with commentary—thereby extending the idea of what it means to do research to a broader public.

Archival research has long been the foundation of historians’ work, but little of the thrill of search and inquiry makes it into published histories or history courses themselves. Claire Potter and Julia Foulkes are inserting archival material and, more importantly, the quest to discover the past, into history courses this semester. Claire’s seminar reverses the typical progression from secondary sources to archival research, asking students to begin with the archival record—ACT-UP, activist art collective Gran Fury, lesbian feminist Karla Jay—and then figure out what they need to know to tell a story. Julia is trying out a new approach to a broad sweep of U.S. history that looks at 13 “acts,” each class organized around a moment in time that emphasizes its contested meanings and uses for public memory. Students will research a 14th act from items in the Manuscripts and Archives Division of NYPL, creating their own slice of how the past informs the present.

Archives aren’t just for historians any more, though. The group hopes that students’ experiences at the NYPL will encourage them to use archival research in their work across the university. Other faculty members are thinking about how archives build (and mask) knowledge; artists are looking to the remnants for contemporary purposes beyond answering the question “what happened?” Shannon Mattern has taken this innovative approach in many of her graduate courses in media studies, particularly “Archives, Libraries, + Databases.” Joseph Heathcott’s current course, “Archive/City,” explores the various ways in which we collect, organize, and store artifacts, including those accumulated in the built environment itself. And students in Ricardo Montez’s course looked at video footage of direct action advocacy group ACT-UP, and AIDS organization Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) at NYPL to compare raw footage with portions taken from the archive in the 2012 documentary, How to Survive a Plague. Ricardo asks students to look at the archived footage from which a documentary was made and ask about the decisions—ethical, practical, historical—that produce a definitive public narrative. These courses push archival material to new audiences and into debates about urban infrastructure, the design of knowledge, and the ethics of representation.

As the late historian Roy Rosenzweig wrote, “Democratized access is the real payoff in electronic records and materials.” In all the courses associated with this initiative, the goal is to present students’ work in the archives to a larger audience, and the obvious place to do this is on the web, on websites such as Outhistory.org. But if the trend has been to put manuscripts online, Democratizing the Archives recognizes another reality: not everything can, or should go online. The challenge is to connect students’ work explicitly to the bricks and mortar buildings where so much more is available. Furthermore, public libraries can make more persuasive arguments for funding if they connect to new communities with shared research interests. So the group also plans to connect to neighborhood organizations in Greenwich Village, such as the Jefferson Market Library and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, to talk about how our students can help them preserve and expand the histories all around us.

Despite all these initiatives, only a tiny fraction of material in archives will ever be fully available on the web. So, the ultimate goal of the initiative is more cunning: put tantalizing items on the web alongside interpretive work by New School students to get more people into the archives—and discover the past for themselves.