Thursday, February 9, 2012

Archiving the Occupy Wall Street Movement

On the subway yesterday, I noticed that a woman standing near me was prominently wearing an "Occupy" button. "Occupy" buttons, T-shirts, fliers, signs, posters, and other emblems of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement are becoming highly sought-after items for a growing number of people and institutions.

A woman at Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan, October 2011.
photograph taken by the author of this blog

Many institutions - among them, libraries, museums, and historical societies - are actively archiving materials from the grassroots movement. One of these institutions is Queens College's Rosenthal Library, which has been gathering materials for its OWS archive since last November. It is also amassing the oral histories of occupiers. For more details on what Rosenthal Library is doing to preserve OWS history, see the Knight News article below.

The Knight News * January 29, 2012

Preserving OWS History

Part of the Queens College Rosenthal Library's Occupy Wall Street archive.
Photo: Monica Palermo

By Monica Palermo

The Queens College Rosenthal Library has started an archive of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, which began in September 2011 in Zuccotti Park and quickly spread into a world-wide phenomenon.

Faculty from the QC libraries department of special collections and archives traveled to Zuccotti Park to collect artifacts and oral histories in November 2011 in an attempt to preserve the movement.

“[Occupy] Wall Street is the first defining movement of the 21st century,” said Ben Alexander, head of the special collections and archives at QC.

Alexander, who came up with the idea for the OWS archive at QC, went down to the movement with two other members of the department.

The archive is comprised of many different materials, such as flyers, including ones from Occupy Queens College, posters with slogans such as “Health care is a human right,” minutes from meetings, buttons and a T-shirt.

The most important pieces in the collection are the oral histories, which document the movement through interviews with occupiers, according to Alexander.

“The people were extremely friendly and knowledgeable,” said Annie Tummino, who manages the library’s civil rights archive and who went to OWS with Alexander. “They provided great background on why they were there and what they had done.”

This OWS archive is just one of many. According to an article from The Brooklyn Ink, a news outlet staffed entirely of students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, called “The Anarchivists: Who Owns the Occupy Wall Street Narrative?,” not only is there a OWS archive owned by the movement itself that acts as a leaderless archive, but there are also archives starting up at large institutions such as the New York Historical Society, New York University’s Tamiment Library and the Smithsonian’s Natural Museum of American History, who are looking to become the defining archive of OWS History.

“You have big established institutions in New York, kind of fighting to get control of whatever the archive is,” said Alexander, who finds the power struggle ironic. “Some of these institutions are decidedly the one percent negotiating with the movement to become its archive, and it seems to me very out of touch with the ideas that are at the center of the movement.”

Compiling an archive for OWS is tricky because Occupy is an idea, according to Alexander. Another reason why it can be difficult is because archiving information has changed with “people being rushed to create a historical record within days of it happening.”

Archives are typically formed years after history has been made. Twenty-first century archiving seems to happen as events unfold, which Alexander believes will continue to be the trend.

Although there is no official date planned, Tummino said, that like with any of the other collections in the special collections and archives department, it is possible that the materials from the OWS archive will be exhibited.

The OWS archive at the school will continue to be developed by a small group of graduate students this semester. It is not yet open to students, but it will be by the end of spring.

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