Thursday, July 27, 2017

SAA 2017: Local Government Records Section

Water lily in Lake Zither, Lan Su Chinese Garden, Portland Oregon, 26 July 2016.
Greetings from Portland, Oregon and the 2017 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists. Thanks to a happy accident of scheduling, this afternoon I was able to attend the meeting of the Local Government Records Section, which consistently punches well above its weight. Today's meeting focused on documentation of citizen activism in local government records and featured Mary Hansen (Archives and Records Management Division, Portland, Oregon), Christina Bryant (City Archives and Special Collections, New Orleans Public Library), Jamie Seemiller (Denver Public Library), Anne Frantilla (Seattle Municipal Archives), and John Slate (Dallas Municipal Archives). Local government records don't always get a lot of respect from researchers, the public, or -- sadly -- some archivists, and this quintet highlighted just how varied and compelling they can be. Key takeaways:
  • Activism often involves some form of engagement or interaction with government, and local government records are a particularly rich source of such interactions. In addition, they contain information about local groups and local topics of concern and citizen perspectives (e.g., those of homemakers or street musicians) that might not be well documented in other collections.
  • During the middle decades of the twentieth century, urban police departments created surveillance files detailing the activities of suspected communist groups, labor unions, civil rights organizations, women's groups, and other known or suspected radicals. Although many of us might find the fact of their creation objectionable (and late twentieth-century courts in many states ordered the police to stop creating such file), they are a rich source of information about activist groups.
  • City council minutes are an excellent source of information about local and grassroots organizations. Members of these groups offer formal testimony at meetings, and some city councils have "open mike" times that enable any citizen who wishes to speak on any topic to do so. Council records also include citizen petitions and other materials submitted by local activists.
  • Localities' efforts to manage demonstrations are documented in records created by city, town, and village councils and boards, mayors or city managers, police departments, and departments of public works. Commissions established to study the aftermath of demonstrations in which participants clashed with police or caused substantial property damage also generate significant records.
  • In some instances, local government officials and local government bodies are themselves consciously activist, and their activist work is reflected in the records. Council minutes, for example, may document female members' efforts to combat discrimination against women in municipal employment.
  • Evidence of activism may pop up in the unlikeliest of places. For example, records maintained by parks departments in localities that practiced de facto or de jure racial segregation may contain letters and petitions from African-Americans seeking improvements in parks situated in their neighborhoods or seeking equal access to municipal recreational facilities.
  • The records of historic preservation commissions and zoning boards amply document grassroots support for and opposition to preservation efforts and land use policies.
  • Some local government archivists proactively solicit donation of materials documenting activist activity -- and discover that doing so means shifting from a focus on researchers to a focus on donors that may be a bit disorienting. Such shifts require proactive efforts to secure deeds of gift and quietly cull donations in ways that avoid offending or injuring the donors. Archivists working in collecting repositories are accustomed to doing these things, but those working in government repositories may be less adept at doing so.
Update, 28 July 2016: post title changed to reflect content of post. ("Day two" is not a compelling title.)

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