Starting a discussion about self-archiving political movements and the international left

I have been in discussions with various people over the last few months about how movements ‘remember’ themselves and how they engage with their ephemeral history. I am interested in how these movements have often self-archived their materials and what they have done with these materials – are they open to researchers and people interested interested in the history of these movements? Some organisations and movements (as well as certain individuals) have donated their historical papers to various university archives or museums. These are valuable to researchers, but still privilege those who can gain access – usually academics and independent researchers who can afford to do archival research on site.

However some organisations and enterprising researchers are overcoming these obstacles by scanning and digitising the materials of the various progressive and left-wing movements across the Anglophone world. Sites such as the Marxist Internet Archive have been scanning many American, Canadian, British, Irish and Australian documents from the international communist movement, including various Trotskyist and anti-revisionist groups. A number of institutions across the globe have followed, such as the University of Wollongong’s Communist Party of Australia journals, the collection of South African radical material digitised by DISA, the Anti-Apartheid Movement collection at Oxford University, and the Amiel and Melburn Trust collection of British new left journals and the CPGB’s Marxism Today. As well as these institutional initiatives, others are digitising their historical documents at the grassroots level. This can be seen with the Red Mole Rising website, which is archiving online the materials of the International Marxist Group, the Irish Left Archive, the Red Action archive and the Anti-Fascist Archive, amongst others.

The wonderful thing about these online archives is that they are democratising the research of these movements. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can now access these documents, without incurring the costs of doing archival research. This is particularly helpful for those conducting research internationally. The downside is that these initiatives are often costly in terms of equipment and labour, with individuals having to volunteer a lot of their time and effort to provide these resources for others. Also by relying on the efforts of individuals with access to certain collections, there are significant gaps in what is available online. For example, I would like to see more stuff from Militant and the Workers Revolutionary Party made available.

It is exciting to be conducting research in this era of increased digitsation, but there are limits to what we can access at the moment. More people need to get involved – either providing original documents, or offering their services in the scanning process, or by helping out with the costs of hosting the websites (particularly as Scribd and Dropbox are increasingly used to hold these large file depositories).

At the same time, many original activist documents are languishing in people’s attics, basements, garages and other storage areas. These need to be located and preserved. If you have a collection of left-wing ephemera stored away somewhere, do try to find it and think about donating (or selling or at least, lending) it to people who can digitise it and preserve this (often obscured) history.

I hope this starts a discussion about how historians and activists can work together to help ensure that the documentary history of the international left is not overlooked.

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10 comments

  1. Can you suggest places to donate to? I live in Central Scotland, and I have boxes of the stuff. Some of it is obscure or ephemeral (leaflets from demos, etc) and some is no doubt easily available (back issues of newspapers and magazines) but if I knew it would be preserved and digitised I’d be happy to give it away.

  2. Hi Ken, some individuals, such as Rob from the Red Mole Rising project, would be worth contacting, or David Walters from the Marxist Internet Archive. Otherwise, the Working Class Movement Library in Salford would be also a good place to start. If you send me an email (hatfulofhistory@gmail.com), I can pass along to Rob and David.

  3. One key element in this debate is copyright. One of the issues that prevents institutions like archives from digitising recent material (as well as lack of equipment, staff or funding) is that, unless you have permission from every author (or, if dead, whoever their literary executors are) in an issue of Militant, UK/EU law makes it illegal to publish it online. The likelihood of being sued is probably slim, but it can still be enough to put organisations off.

    One recent example of a digitisation project of modern magazines by a big institution was the British Library’s digitisation of Spare Rib – https://www.bl.uk/spare-rib . After it was put online, chunks had to be redacted after complaints from copyright holders.

    The British Library also does web archiving (http://www.bl.uk/aboutus/stratpolprog/digi/webarch/) – unfortunately most of the websites it archives can only be seen on computers on site, again because of copyright law (if the BL republished website content openly online, it would be in breach of copyright law). This is however a big improvement on a few years ago, when the Library could only legally archive websites when it had the authorisation of the copyright holders.

    If you want more material to be made available online, campaign for changes in copyright law. There was a ‘Free our history’ campaign a couple of years ago – one statement about this is at http://www.cilip.org.uk/advocacy-campaigns-awards/advocacy-campaigns/copyright/free-our-history .

  4. Just to note, one advantage of informal online archives is that it can open up a great discussion of the materials. With the Irish Left Archive, every new document is posted first to the Cedar Lounge Revolution blog (a more general Irish politics blog, from which the archive developed). The comments there have regularly provided valuable insight and context, often from people with direct experience or involvement with the organisations producing the documents. We also maintain a more formally structured, searchable database site (linked in the post above), but I think, on its own, that wouldn’t have been as effective.

    Regarding JW’s comments on copyright, there is a useful look at the issue on the Cork LGBT Archive here: http://corklgbtarchive.com/items/show/82

  5. Reblogged this on Reading Race, Collecting Cultures and commented:
    An interesting post from Hatful Of History on activist archives and digitisation, with some interesting comments. These are issues that we’re tussling with here at the Resource Centre, as we look at how we can make our holdings more accessible, whilst managing issues around copyright and political and personal sensitivities…

  6. I of course agree with you that copyright restrictions are a key element in the problem of making the history of the workers movement available in maximum depth and detail, especially for the more recent parts of it.

    This is less of a problem for publications in the US communist and socialist left prior to 1972 or so, for the vast majority of such material was (usually intentionally) published here without copyright notice, which makes it in the public domain. Of the small amount that was published with copyright notice in the period of 1923 – 1963, most did not have the copyright renewed, so has falling into the public domain.

    I’d say as big or bigger problem is the fact that most of even left-oriented special collections of material simply routinely outright refuse to allow their material to be digitized, and some when they do allow digitization deliberately refuse to let the best resolutions of their scans be available publicly.

    I’m the director of the Riazanov Library digital archive project which has supplied over the last 8 years tens of thousands of pages of digitized socialist and communist periodicals (the majority of which I personally scanned) to Marxists.org, Famous physical archives have refused allowing me to scan material they hold so many times, I’ve long ago lost count. Institutions that stated to me in so many words they have no intention of scanning the material themselves, or hiring others to scan it.]

    This includes some critically historical important material held uniquely by one or another institution. Material that is rapidly decaying, and which the institutions let no one look at, but just keep locked up (presumably so they can boast that they alone have it in their vaults, as a trophy). Again, with no intent to ever scanning this material.

    Part of the problem there is lack of knowledge and resources relating to scanning certain types of material (such as brown brittle broadsheet newspapers, the scanning of which is a specialty of mine). Part of the problem is a misguided and ignorant aversion by small-minded library science types to unbinding certain materials that need to be unbound in order to be properly scanned. Much of microfilm that has been made has serious loss of text in gutters in the images due to the craven and gross incompetence of those making the film or specifying how the film was made, refusing to unbind the broadsheet newspaper volumes in question when this “archiving for all time” was made.

    Sadly, part of the problem is that to this day some individuals on staff at and even directing some institutions… including respected and prestigious ones… have a trophy collector / small shop-keeper mentality toward the holdings of their libraries. They feel … I’ve been told this by some of them in so many words, face to face… that if treasures of their library are made available freely to all, in high quality fashion, their library will be diminished, lose its distinction, and ultimately lose its reason for existing… so they actively oppose such scans being made.

    While this extreme is getting somewhat less common among those in charge of these collections (or at least willingness to be candid that is their motivation is something I’m finding less common among them these days, compared to years past), the fact remains that most such collections (there are a few exceptions) remain hostile to allowing a digital archivist high quality scanning access to their holdings.

    These institutions adopt rules for what can and can’t be done to image their materials that they SAY are intended to protect the integrity of their physical holdings, but in fact are constructed so as to thwart the making of high quality digital images of it.

    For example, many institutions allow hand held cameras to be used, but not copy stands. One that does supply a copy stand to researchers provides one that is low grade, and too small for use with good quality DSLRs and larger format paper, and refuses to allow anyone… including me, who they know to be a responsible digital archivist… to simply bring in their own copy stand to use. Is that preserving the integrity of the holdings?

    The fact is that allowing ONE single effort making high quality images of a holding will protect the physical integrity of that holding better than anything else, by reducing by many orders of magnitude the need for any to physically handle that holding. But many at these institutions are blind to or willfully ignore this.

    The fact is that making digital material easily and freely available for downloading at web sites (as Marxists.org does) and by providing huge parts of or even the entire digital archive posted on a web site in the form of a hard drive one can buy at low cost (as Marxists.org does) helps preserve this history. With such archives in the hands of countless individuals all over the world, the information cannot be destroyed by the shutting down of one or another web site and confiscation of its equipment. This is a benefit added to the primary and obvious one of making this history freely available to all.

    —marty

    Martin H. Goodman MD
    Director, Riazanov Library digital archive project
    Board of Directors Holt Labor Library of San Francisco
    closely (tho informally) associated with Marxists.org

    ps David Walters of Marxists.org once mused to me that many of these libraries treat their brown, brittle, decaying newspaper archives as if they were spent nuclear fuel (what anti-nuclear activists often refer to as “nuclear waste”). Material that needs to be locked up away from all human contact as it slowly decays / decomposes out of existence.

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