Events & News

Why Preservation Activists and Archivists Need Each Other

October 14, 2012 | by Anthony C. Wood, Founder & Chair
Article from the Fall 2012 Newsletter

History engages, empowers, instructs, and inspires. In order for a movement to benefit from its history, that history has to be known. For today’s preservation activists to benefit from those who went before them, they need to know the history of the preservation movement. That history has grown beyond what can be passed down in story and legend. It needs historians to sort it out and write it down. To write that history, authors need a wide variety of sources, among them public and private documents, first person accounts, records, correspondence, the minutes of organizational board meetings, press accounts, and old photographs. That is where we at the Archive Project come in.

At the New York Preservation Archive Project, our focus is on gathering and preserving the widest range of material possible to help future scholars understand and write the history of preservation in New York City. We conduct oral histories (strategically when resources allow, opportunistically when they do not). We rescue personal and organizational papers, and find them secure homes at such permanent collecting institutions as the New York Public Library and the New-York Historical Society. We arrange programs that help capture memories, impressions, and attitudes about preservation events and we encourage other groups to do all of the above.

Our primary focus is gathering the raw material historians will need. We provide the grist for the historical mill. What we gather is usually raw and unprocessed. At best it represents a piece of the puzzle, a few tiles in the mosaic. It is not encyclopedic and ultimately some of it will be proven to be inaccurate. Some of the oral histories we gather will conflict with others. People often experience the same events differently. Perceptions of the who, what, when, where, and why of events can radically differ. In addition to confusion over basic facts, there will be honest disagreements in opinions, analysis, and judgment. Sorting out history is a difficult business and it is not ours to do.

If the archival version of “Kill them all, let God sort them out,” is “Gather all available material, let the historians sort it out,” the challenge for preservation advocates is to make sure that they act as preservation archivists, documenting as fully as possible the preservation stories they feel are important. Preservation advocates are often too busy fighting the good fight to keep a chronology of the events in which they are essential participants. It is only in the rarest of instances (such as the Two Columbus Circle documentation project on or the book The Fight for City and Suburban Homes: A Model for Successful Community Action) that an effort has been successfully made to document a preservation campaign shortly after its completion.

At times, preservation advocates have been disappointed in what preservation archivists have been able to gather. Why didn’t the oral history with Preservationist X reveal that although he or she was a preservation hero in the escapades they chose to talk about, that same Preservationist X was an obstacle to preservation in episodes they chose not to recount? Why was one person interviewed and not another? Why does the obituary of a fallen preservationist call out their pro-preservation activities but fail to expose their actions—or inactions—that were hostile to preservation? What if the preserved personal papers of a preservationist only tell the story of their involvement in saving a landmark and not those of the others involved? Sadly, such are the limits of such raw resources.

As Churchill noted, “History is written from the evidence that is available and accessible.” The preservation archivist needs the help of the preservation activist to make sure that the greatest possible amount of evidence is available and accessible. If the full history of preservation is to be accurately known, your memories, your documents, your activities need to be fully documented and those documents preserved. If future generations of preservationists are to be inspired and instructed by your efforts and those of your organization, then in addition to fighting the good fight you need to document that good fight! Conduct oral histories with those involved in your efforts, treat your files as an archive, develop an archival mindset consciously documenting your activities, and remember that an archival mindset does not demand a hefty archival budget.

The only way we can truly achieve our mission of documenting, preserving, and celebrating the history of preservation is by turning preservation activists into archivists. To help in this transformation, this fall the Archive Project is providing workshop opportunities to empower individual preservationists and preservation organizations to become better curators of their own archives. Please see the related story in this newsletter and contact us if we can be of help.

Remember: It’s your memory. It’s our history. It’s worth saving.

Above: Archive file register; Courtesy of the New York Preservation Archive Project