Radical Archives and the New Cycles of Contention

Denver Zine Library.
Den­ver Zine Library.

Vint Cerf, co-designer of the internet’s basic archi­tec­ture and a vice pres­i­dent for research with Google, recently sounded the alarm about “bit rot” or the degra­da­tion of data files. He warns that we’re fac­ing a “for­got­ten cen­tury” of his­tor­i­cal doc­u­men­ta­tion because we lack the com­puter soft­ware and hard­ware nec­es­sary to read obso­lete com­puter files.1

Reflect on what this means for social move­ments: the meet­ing min­utes, man­i­festo drafts, posi­tion papers, poster designs, calls to action, but­ton tem­plates, care­fully crafted tweets, Face­book event announce­ments and RSVPs, and myr­iad other doc­u­ments of resis­tance already lost to bit rot. If we jump for­ward to today, our enthu­si­asm for cloud com­put­ing could spell just as dire an out­look for doc­u­ment­ing our con­tem­po­rary move­ments.

The ephemera, strate­giz­ing, and doc­u­men­ta­tion of con­tem­po­rary social move­ments are at risk. Activists risk los­ing the offi­cial record of their actions when every­thing that con­sti­tutes an archive of social change is entrusted to third-party web apps and com­pa­nies, such as Face­book, Insta­gram, Tum­blr, and Twit­ter. We’ve moved rel­a­tively quickly from con­cerns about back­ing up phys­i­cal hard dri­ves – eas­ily made obso­lete by the col­lapse of com­pa­nies (Iomega Zip Drive, any­one?) and the tri­umph of one file for­mat over another – to blindly trust­ing that our orga­ni­za­tions’ think­ing and plan­ning are safe “in the cloud.” After all, who actu­ally reads the terms and con­di­tions for using Google Docs, or any other ser­vice that allows for online col­lab­o­ra­tion and high stor­age at low cost?

This is a call for bet­ter preser­va­tion of our his­tor­i­cal legacy and guides to orga­niz­ing for future gen­er­a­tions. Like every­thing else we humans touch, archives are polit­i­cal. At the heart of calls for pre­serv­ing our past – recent and even fur­ther back – is a ques­tion of trust. Who are activists going to trust with telling the his­tory of their move­ments, achieve­ments, and defeats? Who will be able to tell that story if our mem­o­ries are locked behind a pay­wall, dis­carded, or mis­placed as the result of a change in own­er­ship of the ser­vices we use daily?

Archivists and archival activists are engaged in mean­ing­ful debates, and praxis, over the politi­ciza­tion of records, the pol­i­tics of orga­niz­ing of doc­u­ments, the archivist’s role in move­ments (active agents or pas­sive col­lec­tors?), and the power struc­tures that dic­tate which groups’ records are col­lected and pre­served.2 These debates are crit­i­cal to activists and orga­niz­ers because they deter­mine who will know his­tory and, impor­tantly, how it will be known. What becomes of our dig­i­tal records is part of this con­ver­sa­tion.

I’m propos­ing that we con­sider move­ments and our dig­i­tal records in the con­text of “cycles of con­tention.” Think about these cycles as the open­ing and clos­ing of win­dows of oppor­tu­ni­ties for peo­ple to real­ize that their prob­lems aren’t indi­vid­ual fail­ings, but sys­temic, and then to act on those griev­ances as a group.

Soci­ol­o­gist Sid­ney Tar­row, in the 1990s, described these stages as a cycle of con­tention.3 First, as ten­sions mount and peo­ple begin to artic­u­late their prob­lems, there is a build­ing and coa­lesc­ing of con­cerns and move­ments to action. Next, ide­ally, we see activists becom­ing orga­niz­ers, because they’re think­ing about goals, strate­gies, and tac­tics, and inno­vat­ing on forms of protest that have his­tor­i­cally worked or failed. Third, we would see the cre­ation of or dra­matic changes within frame­works – how we make mean­ing out of our sit­u­a­tion or frame our col­lec­tive prob­lems. At the same time, a move­ment would have peo­ple act­ing on the same griev­ances, but approach­ing them using dif­fer­ent strate­gies. They might all be part of the same orga­ni­za­tion, or ele­ments of a social move­ment “sec­tor” spread out geo­graph­i­cally. We’d also see, based on this new level of mean­ing-mak­ing and action, increased inter­ac­tions between the peo­ple and those in power. This becomes a cycle because, win or lose, there will also be those in soci­ety with griev­ances that need address­ing but, accord­ing to Tar­row, regard­less of polit­i­cal stripe, the stages of the cycle will be sim­i­lar. Griev­ance, mean­ing-mak­ing, strate­giz­ing, action, con­fronta­tion; repeat.

It’s not too far of a stretch to sug­gest that our use of social media, web tools, and cloud stor­age is now impli­cated in each stage of this cycle. Take, for exam­ple, the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment. It’s indis­putable that dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies brought the mur­ders of San­dra Bland, Eric Gar­ner, John Craw­ford III, and too many other African-Amer­i­cans to our col­lec­tive atten­tion. The urgency with which young peo­ple, many of whom have never con­sid­ered them­selves activists, mobi­lize, cre­ate trend­ing hash­tags, dis­sem­i­nate meet­ing times, craft agen­das, and spread slo­gans with dig­i­tal tools and orga­niz­ing strate­gies. These are cycles of dig­i­tal con­tention, if you will, which update Tarrow’s schema.

But how do we archivists and preser­va­tion­ists con­vey to those strug­gling, in this fast-paced moment, the impor­tance of orga­niz­ing archives? Those of us who care about pre­serv­ing our orga­niz­ing past for use in the future need to con­vey that an archive isn’t a dead entity – archives are a liv­ing repos­i­tory. Main­tain­ing our own records is the best chance we have of shap­ing our real­ity. Oth­er­wise, the story that is told today in the main­stream media and by politi­cians seek­ing to crim­i­nal­ize and cap­i­tal­ize on dis­sent becomes the his­tor­i­cal record as recorded by cor­po­rate archives and his­tor­i­cal soci­eties con­sumed by the his­tory of “Great Men.”4 This shap­ing and doc­u­ment­ing of our real­ity means that activists are build­ing a foun­da­tion today that will allow future orga­niz­ers to not have to rein­vent the wheel.

I want to rein­force these points, about archiv­ing in gen­eral and dig­i­tal archives in par­tic­u­lar, by refer­ring to my own expe­ri­ences with the analog archives of black fem­i­nist activists and orga­ni­za­tions. In this instance, the Fed­eral Bureau of Inves­ti­ga­tions (FBI) was an acci­den­tal third-party archivist of rad­i­cal his­tory.

In the 1990s, thirty plus years after the fact, I set out to con­struct a com­pre­hen­sive his­tory of 1970s black fem­i­nist orga­niz­ing. There were plenty of mag­a­zine clip­pings in archives that nor­mal­ized fem­i­nism as “a white thing,” the purview solely of white fem­i­nists. Black mag­a­zi­nes con­tained arti­cles with titles such as Encore magazine’s 1973 hit piece “Women’s Lib Has No Soul.” It was the allu­sion, though, to black women’s incli­na­tions toward fem­i­nism in main­stream arti­cles, such as a 1973 Newsweek arti­cle called “Fem­i­nism: ‘The Black Nuance,’” that encour­aged my pur­suit of black fem­i­nists and orga­nized groups. More impor­tantly, con­ver­sa­tions with black fem­i­nists active in the era affirmed my research into this undoc­u­mented his­tory.

Archival research even­tu­ally revealed the exis­tence of five black fem­i­nist orga­ni­za­tions: the Third World Women’s Alliance, the National Black Fem­i­nist Orga­ni­za­tion, the National Alliance of Black Fem­i­nists, and Black Women Orga­nized for Action, and the fairly well-known Com­ba­hee River Col­lec­tive. How­ever, more records existed un-archived rather than in insti­tu­tional archives.

Grad­u­ate stu­dents are taught, as his­tor­i­cal researchers, a key ques­tion to ask our inter­vie­wees: “Do you have any per­sonal papers or archives related to the orga­ni­za­tion that I could see?” I quickly learned that the best response wasn’t, “Yes, I donated my papers to Uni­ver­sity Archive X.” Instead, more fruit­ful was the unex­pected, but often-heard: “Actu­ally, I think I might have some papers in my basement/attic/storage unit/under my bed.” These archives, out of sight and prone to dan­gers such as fire and flood, lived on, unno­ticed, until some­one asked after them.

One archival col­lec­tion speaks to this idea of a liv­ing repos­i­tory. To my knowl­edge, the FBI col­lected and main­tains the most com­plete record of the Bay Area-based Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA) newslet­ters. Based on a Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act Request request in the 1990s, the FBI sent me over 200 pages of redacted doc­u­ments. I assumed, or hoped, these records would con­tain evi­dence of COINTELPRO action against the TWWA. While there were a few doc­u­ments pro­vid­ing evi­dence of infil­tra­tion and agents provo­ca­teurs attend­ing TWWA orga­niz­ing meet­ings, per­haps more sig­nif­i­cantly the major­ity of the doc­u­ments were copies of every newslet­ter the orga­ni­za­tion pub­lished from 1971-1974.

If it’s pos­si­ble to set aside for the moment the white suprema­cist vio­lence and rep­re­hen­si­ble vio­la­tion of civil lib­er­ties wrought by COINTELPRO oper­a­tions, this act of “archiv­ing” a social jus­tice organization’s activ­i­ties pro­vided a com­plete his­tor­i­cal record of TWWA’s phi­los­o­phy and actions. This black fem­i­nist social­ist orga­ni­za­tion was ded­i­cated to “the elim­i­na­tion of the oppres­sion and exploita­tion” from which black and Third World com­mu­ni­ties suf­fered, and “tak[ing] an active part in cre­at­ing a social­ist soci­ety.” The TWWA orga­nized a range of activ­i­ties in black and Third World com­mu­ni­ties designed to model the self-deter­mi­na­tion they and other social jus­tice orga­ni­za­tions of the era sought. As I detail in Liv­ing for the Rev­o­lu­tion: Black Fem­i­nist Orga­ni­za­tions 1968-1980 (Duke Uni­ver­sity Press, 2005), TWWA’s work in black com­mu­ni­ties estab­lished a defin­ing prece­dent for later black women’s activism, with the goal of end­ing racial, gen­der, and class oppres­sion, or what we now call inter­sec­tion­al­ity.

Should we thank the fed­eral gov­ern­ment for their spy­ing, which resulted in an acci­den­tal archive that no other his­tor­i­cal archive pos­sessed? It would have been unheard of for the TWWA to con­sider the FBI their organization’s offi­cial archivist. So why are we let­ting Face­book or even blog­ging plat­forms like Word­Press be the de facto archivist of our calls to action, poster PDFs, orga­ni­za­tional records, and other born-dig­i­tal mate­ri­als?

Let’s con­sider the FBI in the par­lance of today’s tech­no­log­i­cal struc­ture: are the FBI and the U.S. National Archives an early ver­sion of a third-party plat­form, such as Face­book, Twit­ter, Insta­gram, SnapChat, or a host of other social media plat­forms? All of these insti­tu­tions have their own pri­vacy poli­cies, terms of ser­vice, and archiv­ing poli­cies. Is it wise to entrust the work and legacy of our move­ments to cor­po­rate (.com), edu­ca­tional (.edu) and gov­ern­ment (.gov) third-par­ties?

If activist groups have our web­sites reg­u­larly crawled by the Inter­net Archive – bravo! If we’re fol­low­ing guide­li­nes for archiv­ing video from the point of cre­ation, as Wit­ness, an inter­na­tional orga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to video as a human rights tool, advises, we’re empow­er­ing our­selves to pre­serve our legacy. We’re (at least par­tially) tak­ing care of our activist legacy, ensur­ing it’s avail­able for the future: for our own use, for tomorrow’s activists, or for his­to­ri­ans who will tell the story of our suc­cesses or fail­ures.5

If we down­load our archive using the tools a third-party ser­vice provider offers, do we know what file for­mat we’ve entrusted with our archive? Do we have more than one piece of hard­ware and a copy of at least one soft­ware pro­gram that will be able to read those files two, three, five years from now?

The Library of Con­gress offers a set of file for­mats that it pre­dicts open source, non-pro­pri­etary soft­ware will be able to read in the future.6 We should revisit our files and save them in these preser­va­tion for­mats. Microsoft Word, for exam­ple, might seem now like it will dom­i­nate the word pro­cess­ing mar­ket forever, and some groups may opt for an open source for­mat such as Libre Office. But PDFs, specif­i­cally the for­mat PDF/A 1, not .docx, is the pre­ferred for­mat for long-term preser­va­tion of doc­u­ments.

The ideal backup archival and preser­va­tion-ready sit­u­a­tion would be to have a copy of your group’s archives, in preser­va­tion accept­able for­mat, on three dif­fer­ent hard dri­ves. These hard drive back­ups are then kept in dif­fer­ent loca­tions in case of fire, flood, or theft. Those hard dri­ves would, addi­tion­ally, be tested every year to make sure the files are acces­si­ble with the soft­ware you have on hand. As a final step, the files would be trans­ferred to a new set of hard dri­ves every five years.

For fur­ther infor­ma­tion, I’ll rec­om­mend the work of activist-archivist-researchers, such as Howard Besser and col­leagues’ web­site, Activist Archivists. They offer sounds rea­sons for archiv­ing your group’s records, as well as links to other orga­ni­za­tions who are archiv­ing move­ment his­tory. Much recent archival work is related to the Occupy move­ment, but the advice isn’t exclu­sive to any one move­ment. It’s rel­e­vant to any social jus­tice group that wants to pre­serve their work for their own use or that of future activists.

In a recent arti­cle about the adept­ness with which young activists are mobi­liz­ing against racist police vio­lence using social media, the New York Times observed,

Their inno­va­tion has been to marry the strengths of social media — the swift, morally blunt con­sen­sus that can be cre­ated by hash­tags; the per­sonal con­nec­tion that a charis­matic online per­sona can make with fol­low­ers; the broad net­works that allow for the easy dis­tri­b­u­tion of doc­u­men­tary pho­tos and videos — with an effort to quickly mobi­lize protests in each new city where a police shoot­ing occurs.“7

There are still analog social move­ment archives being dis­cov­ered and deposited into tra­di­tional archives. But if we’ve lost decades of social move­ment his­tory due to dig­i­tal degra­da­tion, or bit rot, we would do well to insert the pro­duc­tion, archiv­ing, and preser­va­tion of our born-dig­i­tal mate­ri­als as a cru­cial step into Tarrow’s cycles of con­tention. This kind of inno­va­tion, which cou­ples social media with mobi­liza­tion, risks being lost as quickly as it’s devel­oped.

Per­haps this is, as some activists argue, a good thing: keep chal­leng­ing the sta­tus quo with new ideas and iden­ti­ties that are unex­pected. But with­out a last­ing record of all the new con­tent, we’ll be left with remem­brances of tools that may or may not have con­tributed to lib­er­a­tion. Whether we’re talk­ing about the analog records of the past, or the dig­i­tal records of the present, our the­ory and praxis lives in our doc­u­men­ta­tion and records.


  1. Ian Sam­ple, “Google Boss Warns of  ‘For­got­ten Cen­tury’ with Email and Pho­tos at Risk,” The Guardian, 15 Feb­ru­ary 2015. 

  2. Choice arti­cles in the field include: Pre­mesh Lalu, “The Vir­tual Stam­pede for Africa: Digi­ti­sa­tion, Post­colo­nial­ity and Archives of the Lib­er­a­tion Strug­gles in South­ern Africa,” Inno­va­tion 34 (June 2007), 28-44; Wendy M. Duff, Andrew Flinn, Karen Emily Suur­tamm, and David A. Wal­lace, “Social Jus­tice Impact of Archives: a Pre­lim­i­nary Inves­ti­ga­tion,” Archival Sci­ence, 13.4 (2012), 317-348; and John Van Maa­nen and Brian Pent­land, “Cops and Audi­tors: the Rhetoric of Records,” in The Legal­is­tic Orga­ni­za­tion, eds. Sim B. Sitkin and Robert J. Bies (Thou­sand Oaks, CA: Sage Pub­li­ca­tions, 1994), 53-90

  3. See Sid­ney Tar­row, Power in Move­ment: Social Move­ments and Con­tentious Pol­i­tics (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Press, 2011 [1994]). 

  4. There are insti­tu­tional archives col­lect­ing con­tem­po­rary activists’ records, but the pol­i­tics of access are of con­cern to both activists and archivists. That con­ver­sa­tion is, how­ever, out­side the scope of this arti­cle and its con­cerns with sim­ply assert­ing the impor­tance of activists archives in the first place. 

  5. Check out View­point Magazine’s archival web crawl. View­point is also part of New York University’s Tami­ment Library’s Com­mu­nism, Social­ism, Trot­sky­ism Web Archive

  6. Ques­tion: Isn’t the Library of Con­gress a third-party, nay, an agent of The Man? Answer: After sig­nif­i­cant con­tact with the LoC and its preser­va­tion­ists, I trust the institution’s infor­ma­tion agnos­ti­cism and ded­i­ca­tion to pre­serv­ing records and data. The research and infor­ma­tion gen­er­ated about preser­va­tion file for­mats crosses insti­tu­tional and grass­roots bound­aries.  

  7. Jay Caspian Kang, “Our Demand Is Sim­ple: Stop Killing Us,” The New York Times Mag­a­zine, May 4, 2015. 

Author of the article

is a digital preservation and social media consultant with a background in the social psychology of collective identities in social movements and social media engagement. She is the author of Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968–1980.