Preserving Dissent: Labor Archives and Archivists’ Labor

The directory of labor archives in the United States and Canada compiled by the Labor Archives Roundtable at the Society of American Archivists makes it clear that preservation of, and access to, records concerning labor movements is a priority for North American institutions of status and power. The Labor Archives Roundtable aims to connect archivists, labor organizations, researchers, and institutions with an interest in records concerning labor to ensure preservation of and access to such records. In its directory the Roundtable lists archives in the field of labor in 30 U.S. states, among which New York is particularly well-represented by the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at the Tamiment Library at New York University, and the archives and library at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. This article will review some of the roles, contradictions, challenges and opportunities faced by archives that deal explicitly with the records of organizations like those in labor movements who challenge established social power relations.

When making decisions about preservation of, and access to, archival records, archivists face significant conceptual, technical, and social hurdles. One conceptual challenge concerns the natures of archives and archival work themselves. In 2002 archivists Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook made an argument for the creative social and historical powers of archives and for the resulting responsibilities of archivists. Their article, titled “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory,” asserted that traditional archival practice had clung to the conjoined myths of professional and archival neutrality. By refusing to recognize the role archives play as sites for the negotiation of social power and the creation of social memory, and the resultant influence of archivists upon that negotiation and creation, archivists refused accountability for their own roles in the perpetuance of existing social power relations. As Schwartz and Cook note, archives originate in the information needs and social values of the powerful; they are not spontaneously-occurring historical repositories but reflect instead the concerns of a society’s privileged classes. Without continual questioning by archivists, the records chosen for inclusion in an archive may well document and justify only the powerful.

This lack of questioning is dangerous because it implicitly supports the archival myth of neutrality and objectivity, and thus sanctions the already strong predilection of archives and archivists to document primarily mainstream culture and powerful records creators (Schwartz and Cook, 18).

The challenges faced by archivists include technical and social obstacles. As the article “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era,” by historian Roy Rosenzweig, underlines, “preservation of the past is, in the end, often a matter of allocating adequate resources” (Rosenzweig, 761). Writing in 2003, Rosenzweig focused on the new challenges of preservation and access posed by records in digital formats. He concluded that although the technical hurdles involved in archiving born-digital materials are substantial, “the problems are much more than technical and involve difficult social, political, and organizational questions of authenticity, ownership, and responsibility” (Rosenzweig, 748). Allocation of resources to preserve historical records is complicated when, as with born-digital materials, ownership of, and thus responsibility for, those records is diffuse and/or ambiguous.

Of course archivists focused on records pertaining to organizations, such as labor organizations, who challenge existing power relations are not immune to the reassuring inclination to view their profession as a neutral endeavor committed to safeguarding an uncontroversial historicity. Neither are they free of the technical, social, and political challenges facing archival work in general and the archiving of born-digital materials in particular. In fact, it could be argued that such archives face those hurdles to a greater extent than do less politicized archives as they document the more diffuse and less well-funded efforts made and media used by those who oppose the interests of society’s powerful. Nor does the existence of specialized archives that treat labor movements, such as the Kheel Center, the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, and the archives at the YIVO Institute, obviate the necessity for sensitive consideration of the ways in which such archives’ records should be preserved for future access. As political scientist Michael Lipsky noted in his 1969 paper, “Toward a Theory of Street-level Bureaucracy,” the existence of such specialized units may only reinforce omission of less powerful groups from consideration and responsible treatment by mainstream organizational efforts.

These units permit Street-level Bureaucrats to allege that problems are being handled and provide a “place” in the bureaucracy where particularly vociferous and persistent complainants can be referred. At the same time, the existence of the units deflects pressures for general reorientation (Lipsky, 19).

Archivists at Cornell, New York University, and the YIVO Institute are privileged and supported in their work by their affiliation with high-status institutions who enjoy substantial funding and influence. Similarly, the Progressive Librarians Guild, an organization committed to hosting discussion of radical and labor-related issues in libraries and library work, locates its archives at the American Library Association Archives. The American Library Association is a well-connected and funded organization whose stability and status will help to ensure the continued preservation of, and access to, those archives (housed currently at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). It can thus be seen that archivists who work with records that explicitly challenge existing power relations, and in archives that prioritize those records, do not enjoy a simplified approach to their material, but rather face a heightened need for sensitivity to the conceptual, technical, and social challenges faced by the archival profession in general. Specialized archives that prioritize the less powerful will need to ensure their own survival, likely by alliance with more powerful organizations. Archivists will need to include consideration of such relationships in their archival work if they are to achieve, as Schwartz and Cook enjoined, an opening of archives’ and archivists’ power “to vital debate and transparent accountability” (Schwartz and Cook, 1).


Works Cited

Lipsky, M. (1969). “Toward a theory of street-level bureaucracy.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, NYC.

Rosenzweig, R. (2003). “Scarcity or abundance? Preserving the past in a digital era,” The American Historical Review 108(3): 735–763.

Schwartz, J. & Cook, T. (2002). “Archives, records, and power: the making of modern memory,” Archival Science 2: 1–19.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *