When it comes to archiving progressive histories, great content is what you want and a great process is how to get it. In 2006, as a graduate student at Cornell University, I was fortunate to participate in an archiving effort that turned up some great content. I was part of then Professor Pierre Clavel’s class that led to a five-day effort by six graduate students to collect oral history interviews with key figures in Burlington, Vermont’s progressive movement. Below, I outline what I believe to be the reasons for the success of the Burlington archiving expedition and offer these as tips for collecting your own progressive histories.
1. Get on the Same Page. The idea of documenting Burlington came from the community itself. Progressives in Burlington were facing a critical transition. Then Mayor Peter Clavelle (who jokingly called Pierre his “long lost cousin” for their similar names) had announced his intentions to step down as mayor at the end of his term. It was uncertain whether progressives would retain control of the mayoral office. John Davis, one of the key progressive figures in Burlington, knew that Pierre was developing a Progressive City and Neighborhood Planning Archive, and transmitted the concern key documents might be lost. At some point I, and other members of the class, concocted the idea of an expedition to Burlington (I had lived in Burlington, which helped). Then John reached out to Pierre. From that point, John and Pierre collaborated to identify the key progressive figures in Burlington, develop a set of priorities, and together we created an itinerary. Both Burlington and Cornell perspectives and both priorities were incorporated into the archiving effort. Mutual engagement paved the way for a better outcome.
2. Focus on Oral Histories. Oral history was central to our efforts. Yes, we wanted to know about important documents and chronologies, but we could capture these details in interviews. In at least one case, and hopefully more in the future, Pierre incorporated quotes from one of the interviews into an article. Quotes are far more dynamic and easier to relate to than dry exposition, don’t you think?
3. Mobilize an Archiving Posse. Including Pierre, seven Cornellians were collecting oral history interviews. We split into two-person teams, with one person focusing on the interview and the second person focused on the technology. And in case you are interested in the technology, each team had a laptop loaded with the free recording software Audacity.
4. Make Archiving a Tightly Focused Event. It’s easy for archiving efforts to lose steam when they’re drawn out. We captured a remarkable amount of information by focusing our efforts into a one-week period. With adequate notice and a week dedicated to archiving, we arranged to interview all of the busy “key figures” in Burlington’s progressive efforts with the notable exception of Senator Bernie Sanders. As the logistics coordinator, I wanted to ensure that it was enjoyable for the student interviewers and that they understood the magnitude and breadth of progressive efforts in Burlington, so I arranged tours of redevelopment areas, affordable housing, nonprofits and other progressive innovations in Burlington. And finally, in the spirit of making archiving an event, Burlington’s progressive leaders joined our archiving group for a celebratory pizza. We were raised the energy around our efforts to preserve the city’s progressive history by focusing our archiving activities into a dedicated week.
5. Leave the History Where It Belongs. After we collected hours of interviews, captured photographs and scans of key documents, and through our interview captured a chronology of progressive activities in Burlington, we needed a place for the cache of documentation. Pierre Clavel’s philosophy is to keep original materials in the community, and retaining copies of the originals at the educational institution, in this case Cornell University. We worked with our contacts in Burlington to identify a local archive. The materials we collected are now in the University of Vermont archive.
Article by Crystal Launder, Progressive Cities website administrator and housing planner with the City of Boulder, Colorado.