May 26, 2017

Libraries Preserve Protest Posters

Signs from the Washington, DC, march Photo credit: Julia Kedge

Signs from the Washington, DC, march
Photo credit: Julia Kedge

In the wake of the record-breaking attendance at the January 21 Women’s March on Washington, and sister marches in over 60 cities on all seven continents, social media reported that protesters were abandoning their signs after the event. Not all of those were destined for the recycling bin, however: archivists in several cities came out to collect and preserve them. The signs, many homemade and bearing witty slogans, were a highlight of the marches which, according to the organizers’ website, aimed to “send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights. We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us.”

The events drew such large crowds that, in some cities, the actual “march” part of the rally had to be cancelled because the entire route was full of protesters.

Among the crowds were archivists collecting oral histories. These volunteers were organized by the Women’s March on Washington Archives Project, a group that grew out of the Society of American Archivists (SAA)’s Women Archivists Section. The cofounders of the project, Danielle Russell and Katrina Vandeven, wanted to create an online digital archive of Women’s March materials similar to Documenting Ferguson, but faced a larger and more dispersed body of information and contributors. They see the project as a clearinghouse that connects protesters seeking to donate their physical materials with local repositories. In addition, the oral histories and photographs collected by volunteers will be housed in an Omeka-based digital archive they are building with a partner institution which will be announced on February 22. They anticipate a collection of over 600 interviews, approximately 570 of which have already been conducted in cities across the country and internationally. More are planned, including virtual interviews with protesters from the international marches.

In Boston, the Schlesinger Library hopes to be one of those regional repositories. Kathryn Jacob, the curator of manuscripts at Schlesinger, reports that the library is working with the local Boston organizers to collect a representative sample of posters and other ephemera, including buttons and hats. It is already the official archive of the 2004 March for Women’s Lives, a protest in support of reproductive rights. As Jacobs puts it, that protest was more of a “one and done” event, whereas the Women’s March on Washington and the associated sister marches are a bit different and are likely to spark additional actions—and thus, collecting opportunities.

Professors at Boston’s Northeastern University also collected a large number of signs on the evening of the march. Acting quickly before they could be thrown out, Professor Nathan Felde of the College of Arts, Media and Design (CAMD) rented a van and a storage unit and collected between 1,000 and 2,000 posters. He reached out to librarians and archivists at the Snell Library to find a way to preserve the collection. Patrick Yott, associate dean for digital strategies and services at Snell, agreed that the library would support the project and help with digitization and metadata collection. They are planning a one-day digitization event, to be scheduled for sometime in February, that will capture images and metadata for all of the posters. That information would then be made accessible to the public for any number of possible uses. Felde and his fellow faculty members see the collection as a “publicly curated collective artwork.” Yott sees applications for possible text-mining in disciplines such as law, history, and rhetoric as well. A public-facing website to host the collection, www.artofthemarch.northeastern.edu, goes live this week. Community members will be able to contribute their own images of signs and accompanying metadata.

Going forward, Yott hopes that Northeastern Libraries will be able to deploy collection “SWAT teams” to collect accidental archives whenever they arise. These teams would use custom data-loaders based on Google Forms to add images and info to an Omeka site which could then be imported into Northeastern’s digital repository and made available to the public very quickly.

Libraries in many other states are collecting signs, photos, and other ephemera from the march, including the New York Public Library, the Denver Public Library, and the Newberry Library in Chicago. The Facebook page for the Women’s March on Washington Archives Project has several posts from local libraries accepting donations. The Huffington Post also compiled a partial list.

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Comments

  1. Well, it’s good someone picked up all the trash left behind by protesters.

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