Archives for Activists

By Casey Westerman

The winners may write history, as the saying goes, but as the years go by, historians will write and rewrite based on what’s been preserved in archives. Memories fade, members drift away, and for future chroniclers, the best source of information about the history of any organization is that organization’s archives. Any group interested in preserving its own past should take care to preserve its archives.

A decentralized organization like DSA presents a unique archival challenge. With decades of history and thousands of members active in dozens of local chapters and working groups, we rely on individuals, active in their local groups, to save the records. The materials that are the most relevant and useful include meeting minutes, correspondence between members or between groups, photographs and videos of events, and newsletters of locals and working groups. (Files are not archival while they are still in active use, and financial records such as receipts and bank statements are generally not considered archival; these should be retained for a period of time and then shredded.) The larger the collection, and the greater the span of time it covers, the more valuable its contents will be to future organizers and historians. 

Prevent Deterioration

If you want to preserve your files for future use, you can take steps now to prevent them from physically deteriorating. Paper materials, even acidic paper such as newsprint, can remain stable over a long period of time if stored in certain environmental conditions. Cool, dry conditions are ideal, but it’s most important to protect files from flooding, drastic swings in temperature, and insects and rodents. The simplest way to achieve this is to avoid storing them in attics and basements. If you have space at the back of a closet, move your files there instead.

If you have a collection of significant size, consider donating it to an archival repository. A number of universities and historical societies across the United States have substantial holdings of DSA-related documents, including the papers of individual activists and the records of local chapters. The websites of archival repositories provide information on the types of papers they collect. 

DSA Collections in Archival Repositories

The biggest collection of DSA archival material is at New York University’s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive. In 1980, Michael Harrington arranged for the donation of the records of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) to that library, and after DSOC merged with the New American Movement (NAM) to create DSA, the current organization has continued to send its files there. Later donations of NAM files complemented the DSOC material. The Tamiment Library also holds Harrington’s professional papers,  the research files for Maurice Isserman’s biography of Harrington, and the the records of Dissent Magazine, many of whose writers and editors were active in DSOC and DSA.

The archives of local DSA groups and of some members of the organization can be found across the country. University archives often acquire the papers of prominent alumni or faculty, and historical societies collect the records of activist organizations in their regions. The Wisconsin Historical Society holds the archives of many activist groups and individuals who kept files on DSA, DSOC, and NAM. The John C. Cort Papers at Catholic University of America include the records of the DSA newsletter Religious Socialism.

If you’d like to investigate the history of DSA groups in your region or look for the papers of DSA leaders, start by searching the collections listed at ArchiveGrid. Most archival collections are open to researchers, and archivists are able to assist you remotely if you can’t travel to do research in person.

And if you want to be sure that your own chapter’s history is preserved, date and save that flyer or folder!

Casey Westerman is a member of Central New Jersey DSA and a professional archivist. 

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Democratic Left magazine.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.