Notes from “The Radical Politics of Hidden Archives”

A cross between minutes and an overview of our March 2 Workshop follows below…feel free to add to the conversation in the comments!

Our first workshop drew a terrific standing-room-only crowd of students, archivists and faculty. The workshop coordinator, Jane Carr, opened the remarks by thanking the workshop’s departmental and individual sponsors – special thanks again to Professors Jackie Goldsby, Tom Augst and Elizabeth McHenry and History PhD candidate Laura Helton.

Workshop leaders Steven Fullwood, archivist and director of the Black Gay and Lesbian Archive and the Hip-Hop Archive at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and Jillian Cuellar, processing archivist for the Communist Party, USA papers at the Tamiment Library, each brought expertise and perspective to the guiding questions of the workshop and the series: interrogating the category of “hidden,” debating the practical challenges of working on the margins of accessibility with materials from cultural/political margins, and asking how (as teachers, scholars and archivists) we can make archives relevant to our own work while increasing the possibilities for the public work they should do?

Fullwood spoke to the “joys, challenges and hazards” of archiving radical movements. First, archivists and scholars who seek to archive and write about radical movements must “acknowledge their own complicated role as gatekeepers,” especially because the “very existence of many radical movements was a critique of the same history that historians and institutions are now seeking to capture, describe and archive them.” Cuellar, who has written and spoken about archivists as cultural mediators and editors of context, also identifies re-imagining the relationship between archivists and scholars as a particularly important project for hidden and/or radical archives.

In his opening remarks, Fullwood described his ongoing work with the Black Gay and Lesbian Archive, which he started in 1999 to address an institutional absence of black queer materials. His overall questions: what does a radical politics of collecting black queer materials look like? How can or should archivists identify themselves in relation to a collection’s radical politics? Can or should radical movements be archived by mainstream institutions? Such questions inevitably foreground two points: access and identification. While the Schomburg’s institutional prestige and mainstream identity may be reasonably accused of attenuating the radical nature of some of the materials it houses, its status as a premier institution dedicated fundamentally to making black history visible makes the Black Gay and Lesbian Archive a radical counter-narrative to homophobic silences and erasures imposed on black queer communities.  Returning to the importance of archivists as mediators, Fullwood also emphasized that identification matters; often, “radical” can be defined by where archivists and scholars stand in relation to prevailing categories, such as Library of Congress subject headings. He asked us to complicate our notions of what activism is – for instance, how does the Schomburg’s culture compare to street cultures? What is radical intellectual activity? Do radical movements die or cease to be radical once they are archived?

In her remarks, Cuellar noted that context – in both processing and describing materials from radical movements – presents a unique challenge. She interjected the role of the everyday by pointing out how often radical political movements on the ground fail to record information about their day to day activities and their organizational structure at the national and local levels. Using a 1977 letter from the CPUSA papers – from a chairman to anonymous “comrades,” regarding “the need for our Party to exert a much greater vanguard role in the Chicano Community – to illustrate multiple potential archival contexts for a single document. The challenge, for both the processing archivist and for the working researcher, is to discern the most important context. For this reason, Cuellar notes, archivists must be conscious in their attempts not to make assumptions about the needs of researchers in their processing work and their efforts to define what radical and hidden mean for each new collection.

Group discussion with Fullwood and Cuellar focused on the following topics and questions:

* Movements don’t die when archived, they live on in a different form; for instance, scholars working on feminist movements and attempting to historicize lesbian communities are currently re-radicalizing feminist archives.

* In thinking about radical archives, the relationship between radicality and illegality colors both the materials available and how they must be interpreted. The presence of disciplinary apparatus is always evident – whether through aliases to avoid the threat of exposure or through the richness of material about radical movements “hidden” in surveillance conducted by opposition (for example, extensive archives of the radical Left at the Hoover Institution).

* Categories and their encoded meanings must constantly be troubled in determining what counts as a movement. Preventing exposure can also be read as passing, collective action as separatism.

* Does the category of “hidden” obscure or fetishize? For example, municipal archives, even those of traditionally oppressive institutions, can document and re-radicalize communities and histories. What are the politics of “unhiding?”

* In thinking about how archivists and scholars can be “mediators” building institutional relationships with and between communities, they must also seek to re-imagine and re-define activism by considering activists as archivists and activists as scholars. These efforts to create new definitions must also include the importance of teaching and professional alliances and partnerships that leverage mutual resources. Culturally, institutionally and academically speaking, now is an opportune moment for such re-definitions and alliances, as those working in cultural curating and literary studies are thinking so critically and creatively (in an age of shrinking budgets) about method and opening up objects of inquiry.

* Access & acquisition – how do we set a market value on radical archives? How can the cultural capital of institutions be balanced against the needs of communities to have archives as a form of representation, to say “we are here?”

* The fundamental need for greater communication between and among archivists, students, working scholars and the members of activist communities – stacking your community, talking about alliances and what we need from each other as producers of knowledge, storytellers, cultural curators and mediators.


2 thoughts on “Notes from “The Radical Politics of Hidden Archives”

  1. lcushing1

    This is an important subject, good questions raised here. Unfortunately, few archivists seem to have the interest or the ability to work with radical archives, so it’s…lonely. This very post has had NO comments. There are some small helpful groupings – Progressive Librarians Guild, Progressive Archivists – but not enough coordination or discussion. I do want to speak up for the urgency of this issue; as groups collapse and can no longer keep their own material (such as the CPUSA did, thus their content ending up at Tamiment) the burden on the limited number of sympathetic and community-based archives grows.
    For some examples of current practice, see

  2. Scott Ziegler

    Coming to this very late, of course, but that’s still probably better than never.

    Though I wasn’t able to make it to presentation, and I don’t know that much about all the happenings in New York, I do feel like I should speak up for the community collecting that’s going on in Philadelphia. We’ve go a Radical Archives and a Radical Library (that focus on the radical left movements), as well as a number of other similar minded organizations. Some of which are currently working to build a consortium — the Philadelphia Alliance of DIY Libraries (PADIYL) ( — to help us make it through the day-to-day struggles of staying open and moving forward.

    So thanks for posting this, and I agree that radical archives can be a lonely field, but there are more of us out there.


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