“Looking back, immediately behind us is dead ground. We don’t see it, and because we don’t see it, there is no period so remote as the recent past. The historian’s job is to anticipate what our perspective of that period will be.” Professor Irwin in The History Boys, 2006.
The “recent past” that has occupied my own current work is the long 1960s. I came of age in Washington, D.C. between 1968 and 1972, diving deep into a profound social movement as only a naïve and invincible high school student can. I went to major demonstrations and fought with riot police. I went to Mobe Marshal trainings with my sister. I helped put out our underground student newspaper. I counseled students about draft resistance, saw grainy films about Vietnam, and made my own poster about the generation gap. I lived it, I knew it – right?
I began to realize how shaky our historical foundation was when I was visiting Cuba in 1989. I was with some other artist friends visiting OSPAAAL, the legendary Organization in Solidarity with the People of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. I knew of them as the publishers of fantastic political posters, and I asked them how many different titles they had produced. I was shocked when they said they didn’t know. That got me motivated, so I began to work with a colleague in the U.S. and we tracked down all known OSPAAAL posters, shot high-quality slides of them, then proceeded to research who made them and when. After several trips to Cuba, lots of faxes and late night calls, and countless hours of work, by 1996 I finally compiled the first catalogue raisonné of OSPAAAL’s output. I shared this with the Cubans in the then-new digital format of CD’s. For the first time, a poster image could be immediately paired with artist name, date of publication, country represented, and other major data points.
The value of this research was evident several times over; at one point I was asked to provide digital prints of Che Guevara posters from U.S. collections that the Cubans themselves no longer had. I realized that I was onto something.
As I became a politicized human being I adopted the practice that part of daily life includes “political work.” That can mean staffing a bookstore, or running a printing press, or writing an essay. I’ve done all of those, but my primary contribution now is as a professional archivist.
In the old days – e.g., over 20 years ago – an archive was usually a staid institution that was responsible for stuff – books, photos, correspondence, videotapes, and such. Access to that stuff for research was often tedious, the result of a meticulous and expensive set of processes involving many library and technical professionals.
That scenario has changed considerably, and it’s transforming what an archive is, how it’s run, and how it’s accessed. The OSPAAAL catalog described above is an early example of that shift, with important implications for scholarship in social justice studies. A democratization is taking place in archival practice.
Here are some of the key elements of this archival revolution:
1. Inexpensive digitization. Images beg to be seen as clearly and completely as possible. When I first started this kind of work the archival standard for 35mm slides was Kodachrome 25. It was very stable, had good color balance, and most importantly, had very fine grain. That’s important when you blow up a poster with tiny type. But just as silver-based film began to slip from the scene, it also became clear that simply having good slides wasn’t enough. At some point they needed to be digitized, and that additional step also took a toll on resolution. Big institutions were able to jump on the high-resolution digital bandwagon early, but at a high price. The cameras were expensive and slow, and a good image would cost as much as $25. Around 2002 affordable consumer cameras became available that produced digital images as sharp as the scans I could get from scanned slides. I bought one and never looked back. I now shoot thousands of crisp images and don’t worry about the cost.
High-resolution scans fulfill several functions in this new archival world. First, a really good image can be used to make very acceptable and affordable digital surrogates that can be passed around a classroom table or mounted for an exhibition. Second, and perhaps more revolutionary, the images can be easily shared globally. I can send an image or a Web link to a scholar instantly anywhere in the world for free, asking if they’ve seen it.
2. Embedded metadata. Geeky enough for you? All this means is that it’s easy to add content information to a digital photo. You already do this now and don’t know it – your cellphone photos are time stamped, and some settings even record location. Ramp that up when you are scanning a conventional print on a flatbed scanner – who shot it, where was it, where is the original photo. These are all vital parts of the puzzle, and are best captured at the moment of digitization.
3. Consumer-grade image databases. For the past 15 years I’ve used an off-the-shelf, cheap, powerful digital asset management system that was originally designed for stock photographers. I can keep track of thousands of images, create galleries based on research requests, add data (and import the data along with images I import, taking advantage of item #2 above), export images at smaller sizes, and produce mini catalogs. Major institutions use very big, expensive databases that are way beyond the range or skill level of ordinary civilians, but that gap is vanishing.
4. Efficient processes for cataloging. Here’s an example of how what I do could not have happened a short time ago. I’m handling a long-term project of building out good catalog records for a huge collection of social justice posters at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA). First, I shot all 24,000 of them, before the collection even was turned over to the museum. The next step was a crew of initial staff entered basic obvious information about each item as they were physically processing each poster – size, medium, full text, and so forth. My job involves pulling up those records and correcting/amplifying them – when was it made, who made it, why should one care about the ten-year community struggle for the International Hotel – all without looking at an actual poster. This is a process that goes a lot faster when you don’t have large and fragile sheets of paper all over your desk. At some point I’ll be able to do it remotely. One could even have an offsite team doing this.
And – here’s where I feel like I’m living in the future – as I’m cataloging each item I can readily use the enormous power of the World Wide Web. Having trouble nailing down when it was printed? (You’d be surprised how often we don’t know the date of publication, and in the historical record, that matters). Between a reverse calendar for day/date concordance and some event searching, I can usually draw a year. Who was that obscure labor leader, or in what year did Patty Hearst rob that bank? Keystrokes.
5. Community building. The best part is asking questions. Sometimes during a single cataloging session I can identify a person connected to the poster, track down an email address, send them a query with a link to an image, and get a reply. Here are a few examples:
6. Improved access to collection content. It’s very hard to share physical collection content with researchers. Not only does it have to be seen on site, but it usually requires the work of several staff and the exposure takes a toll on the object itself. Digital representations of content, however, have none of those limitations. Researchers from the public can usually find what they want through searching the database and retrieving usable items. This does not replace the skill and expertise of a professional archivist, but in most cases it’s good enough. OMCA has put almost all of the posters I’m processing online, some with incomplete or inaccurate records, under the policy that “best is the enemy of good.” Digital records can be easily fixed, and several important facts about posters have resulted from the public seeing items online.
So, how does this affect our own knowledge of our own history, much less help share it with the world? Hugely.
In the course of my cataloging research I’m digging into events that, in most cases, have not entered the digital domain yet – and perhaps never entered the analog one either. I’m turning up artists of previously anonymous posters, compiling complete collections of digital items that do not exist together in real space, and confirming production dates so that we know which event happened before or after that one. I’m assembling facts that are the building blocks of our history. These online catalogs are used by artists, academics, and activists for inspiration, confirmation, and validation.
I’ll end with one of my favorite posters about social justice self-expression, “Speak! You have the tools,” the first poster printed by the San Francisco’s Noe Valley Silkscreen Collective, 1972. The graphic was by Carol Mirman, a student at Kent State who was present during the tragic 1970 National Guard shooting. The people have spoken, and now we finally have the tools to really share those messages with the world.