IISG Symposium on Collecting Sources in Social History (semi-live blog)

I’m in Amsterdam attending the IISG Symposium on Collecting Sources for Social History: who, how, where? which follows a meeting of an IISG visiting committee on which I serve.

The symposium is in honor of the recently retired director of the International Institute of Social History (IISG), Jaap Kloosterman Jaap Kloosterman(who will now become a senior researcher in order to finish work that his long tenure as director did not permit). The attendees are staff and archivists at comparable institutions who collect primary sources in social history. The organizers provided an overview paper (pdf)in order to support discussion on 1. the academic and political considerations of this collecting, 2. the relationship beween collections and research, international considerations and then 3. the future.

I’m recording this while the symposium is occurring because I’m not likely to be able to contribute a lot to the actual discussion. I’m just recording the flow as best I can since I don’t know all the participants by name and in any case they might object to my naive paraphrasing of them.

The morning’s session is chaired by Lex Heerma van Voss (Associate Director) of the IISH.

In their overview paper the organizers posed the trias informatica as the model that should inform the Institute’s thinking about their collecting. The triad of forces at work are the media, the academy and the state. They suggest that the independent collecting institution is an important component within the academic sector. They believe this is a system of checks and balances that obtains throughout the collecting process.

It says “A well-functioning civil society depends on a system of checks and balances between these three main distributors of information: the trias informatica. State institutions, a free press and independent academic institutions operating together, but independently of each other, offer the best possible infrastructure for the blossoming of evidence-based social sciences and in particular of social history.”

There were many immediate reactions to this triad:

This is a historical construct – it should be thrown out. It’s been overtaken. Beleaguered people must describe their own heritage. How can we make that happen?

This makes presumptions about The South (hemisphere). There, in fact, archives depend on the state they are not a balance or a check. They have a very small constituency. There is some discussion of the importance of the ‘Barefoot Archivist’ in these regions.

This is a very Western European conception and presumes a civil society and the value of checks and balances.

In other regions there are other significant players i.e South Africa and the Church. There has also been a shift from collective histories to individual histories.

It’s suggested that these three elements represent a high-level model that describes motivations and modulations of collecting practice. You have to think about the interplay of these forces in a particular region or entity to understand how and why you are directing your collecting activities. Of course, this model has been put forward from the point of view of the IISG in order to stimulate a debate that will inform its own collecting practices in its particular fields of historical strength – social history particularly labor and economic.

Each element of the trias informatica has a range and a character that needs to be taken into account e.g. media can range from state-controlled to pure entertainment, the state from controlled media to keeper of the civil and political record, the academy can look from the published record to the primary source material of the societies they document.

Its useful to think about how the trias concept influences the morality, imperative or the shape of rescuing collections in different regions.


The discussion really seems to be about collecting and various dimensions and challenges of collecting social history materials.

At my institutions ome staff thought that if it’s not true then we don’t collect it i.e. novels, or things not ‘published’.

Tension between those in the social movements and the those who collect – you get hit up for ransom or dismissed as part of the state.

Progress comes from the margins; don’t need to collect the established media.

Social movements that appear and disappear on the internet are a problem. What kind of international effort would allow motivated institutions to collect and copy? These movements want to be told how their presence can be preserved.

Many social movements don’t care about their history – not out of fear or paranoia; they just don’t care. Not unlike some commmerical companies. – former Russian state archivist

Turn the people in the movement into their own researchers by getting them to write their own history and then preserve. This is a way to overcome their paranoia or their social distance from those who collect i.e. the white bourgueous not trusted by the black women.

Restricted access to archives is a way to address the paranoia of those who have materials that need to be collected. Tell people they can take their documents back under certain circumstances.

Make the researchers who are in direct contact with the movements and trusted into collectors on your behalf.

You can take their history back to them – give them back their own documents (or at least offer it to them). Trust will follow.

Social activists are often flattered by the academic attention despite the fact that they have built-in disdain. But it’s important to maintain an even academic neutral position. Your desire to collect should not be based on a particular ideology.

Academic neutrality is being talked about as a positive and its important for the institution to be viewed as neutral despite the fact that some of our staff have personal preferences or may in fact be part of one or more social movements.

Offering the return of archives is not unusual most material is contributed or provided on loan. Most of the material at the IISG is on loan and if the movement wanted it back they wouldn’t discuss it for long. They’d just give it back.

IISG has two types of patrons – reading room users and the people who’s materials you’ve stored. They have different needs. When contributors know you honor the rule you get trust from other groups. Of course, this institution doesn’t have to worry about being invaded by the state right now. The state would be another actor – depending on the region this is more or less of a problem. Every state has some right to access archives and records even in civil societies – think of the Patriot Act in the USA.

Wouldn’t it be good to extend our relationships to local archives? Often the local (city, municipal, etc.) ends up being a last resort. Things are duplicated there or can be reconstructed there.

Back to academic neutrality – don’t believe it exists. Every researcher is biased. Even collecting the materials from both sides of an issue is not ‘neutral’. There’s a difference between ‘partisanship’ and ‘neutral.’ You must reveal partisanship.

Saying you’re neutral won’t get you any material. You get it because they trust you not your institution. You have to be a trusted political chameleon.

In places where there was only ‘the state’ it is useful to be neutral i.e I’m collecting so that there is a social history. You are entitled to your history.

Lots of activists want to know who finances the institution. At IISG the state funds the institute but a foundation supports the collections. This is very useful.

In different regions there is a big tension between political activists and academics. Being academic is not an advantage e.g in India.

Researchers cannot be neutral but archivists must be neutral.

That’s nonsense. What should be collected is a political question. As soon as you answer it you are not neutral. Must reflect on on our stance all the time.

That’s a provocative statement that ought to get discussed further over lunch. END OF THE MORNING SESSION

Jim coordinates the OCLC Research office in San Mateo, CA, focuses on relationships with research libraries and work that renovates the library value proposition in the current information environment.