“Archives, Advocacy, and Change” at the New York Academy of Medicine

“The archival profession is inherently an activist profession.” -Rich Wandel

Last night, the New York Academy of Medicine hosted a panel called “Archives, Advocacy, and Change” as part of their Changemakers series. The panelists were Jenna Freedman, founder of the Barnard Zine Library; Steven Fullwood, founder of In the Life Archive; Timothy Johnson, director of NYU’s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives and co-director of Tamiment’s Cold War Center; and Rich Wandel (quoted above), founder of  The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center National History Archive. 


The impossibility of neutrality in archives and libraries is by now an established point, though there may be some holdouts within the profession. To counteract them, however, this panel brought together four speakers whose collections exemplify the reasons why archives are not and in fact can’t be “neutral.” The archives with which they are involved rose from specific gaps in archival records–gaps which revealed themselves precisely because some person’s or community’s lived experience was not represented within the “neutral” collections that in practice serve to replicate the mores and viewpoints of a particular status quo.

Although their degree of emphasis on this varied as they spoke, each of the panelists had a personal–a decidedly non-neutral–reason for doing what they were doing. (Doesn’t anyone–shouldn’t anyone–in any profession?)

Freedman not only collects and catalogs zines for work, but also creates them herself.

Fullwood grew up gay and black in Toledo, Ohio, and recognized the lack of black queer materials in the libraries and archives around him.

Wandel was a participant in the first Christopher Street Liberation Day March long before he dedicated his time to collecting the kinds of material that show people they do have value–in spite of the families and cultures that have been telling them the opposite.

One of Johnson’s recent major projects is the expansion and consolidation of Tamiment’s Occupy Wall Street Collection, which contains materials that likely would not have been collected had it not been for the students who saw the intersection between their work in the library and their involvement in the movement.

The clear dedication to their collections that each speaker showed, it occurred to me, would not have arisen from an archivist assuming the false mantle of “neutrality.” Such a person wouldn’t have recognized the need.

Broadening the Archive

Collection policies across the archives discussed at this event also demonstrate the concern not only for representing voices that were noticeably absent, but also for providing space in which all voices can be heard.

While Barnard, a women’s college, only started accepting trans women students in 2016, the collection development policy (developed through a community discussion on Livejournal) has been the following since 2011:

Barnard’s zines are written by women (cis- and transgender) with an emphasis on zines by women of color. We collect zines on feminism and femme identity by people of all genders. The zines are personal and political publications on activism, anarchism, body image, third wave feminism, gender, parenting, queer community, riot grrrl, sexual assault, trans experience, and other topics.

This expansive definition opens up a huge arena for voices that may be overwhelmed or misrepresented in other collections.

Likewise, even the name of In The Life Archive (ITLA), formerly The Black Gay and Lesbian Archive, shows a desire not to narrow down the collection to those individuals whose terms of self-identification match those acknowledged by terms commonly in use; instead, as Fullwood noted, it allows for expansion and change over time. (Importantly, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture owes its name to Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, who was told that there was “no black history”–and then donated his personal collection to the NYPL to prove that statement wrong.)

Wandel emphasized that the explicit policy at the LGBTQ Community Center NHA is never to ask, “Is this person important enough?” but to accept whatever by subject or creator is LGBTQ in nature. (“We would not turn away a Log Cabin Republican,” he added not-quite-jokingly at one point, to prove that the mission of the activist archivist is not to narrow but to broaden the scope of collected material.)


Of course, the archives represented as part of this panel do have their specific focuses. Collaboration is the key to ensuring that all kinds of materials can be represented as history is made without diluting the central mission of the collection. When it comes to the archival field, it seems, competition is alien; one can let a thousand flowers bloom in many ways.

Finding a home for materials that may not fit the needs of the users of one collection is a form of collaboration that enables the broadening of the archival record as a whole. Fullwood praised the profusion of archival collections in New York in particular, noting that materials that could not be accessioned to some collections because of their use of public funds or grants, for instance, have plenty of options for collections where they may be more well-respected and well-used.

Additionally, diversity in the field is positive because different archives may serve the needs of their donors differently.

When people ask where to donate their zines, for instance, Freedman told the audience, she asks what their priorities are. In the case of the Barnard Zine Library, each resource exists twice: on the suggestion of Jim Danky, Freedman’s original proposal for the collection included the idea of holding two copies of each zine, one for the archive and one for the stacks, where it might come into contact with the public far more frequently.


The needs of donors played a large role, too, in the development of In The Life Archive. Fullwood described the unfortunate lacuna of black queer representation in the historical record, and explained that even in those rare instances when an archivist might have sought materials from members of that community to incorporate into their collection, they were often met with suspicion. Because no relationship between the community and the archivist or institution existed, potential donors had no reason to trust that their materials would be met with respect. Once ITLA opened up, it relied on the help of community volunteers and word of mouth to organize and to grow its collection.

A final form of activism that can be undertaken by those in the archival field is simply to educate people that their own lives (and their own artifacts) are history.

Wandel explained that a common situation he encounters is hearing from a potential donor who thinks their or their deceased family members’ old copies of “The Advocate” may interest the Center. In reality, however, because those issues were so well-reproduced, they may not be as desirable as the letters, journals, and snapshots that may be thrown out without a second thought if no intervention takes place.

According to Fullwood, one of his goals is to preempt the moment that an individual or organization tosses out historical material simply in order to make space. He hopes to teach them to organize and preserve, and to think archivally about daily life.

“History is real to people,” Wandel passionately declared during his portion of the panel. History is not just an academic discipline but an ever-expanding collective experience that every single person and every kind of experience is involved in. Archives exist so that people can find the stories they need to make sense of this experience: the stories that provide value and context to our lives, our communities, and our ongoing struggles.

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