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 As well as these institutional initiatives, others are digitising their historical documents at the grassroots level.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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9 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…

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