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.