Unprocessed social movement collections at the
University of California, Berkeley libraries

"Looking back, immediately behind us is dead ground. We don't see it, and because we don't see it, there is no period so remote as the recent past.
The historian's job is to anticipate what our perspective of that period will be."
- Professor Irwin in 'The History Boys,' 2006.

Numerous collections have been added to the libraries at UC Berkeley, but are only accessible to the public to a limited degree. This is because the task of processing such materials, sometimes called "custodial collections," is labor and cost-intensive, even for the most basic container list with a collection-level description. Item-level cataloging, and digitization of posters and audiotapes, compounds the challenge. Unfortunately, this is the common state of affairs at most archives.

Many special collections and archives have oversize printed materials such as posters and maps, which can be very useful to research and scholarship. Common sense would dictate that catalog access to these materials, including reference images to assist comparison, would be common practice. However, few of these materials have been digitized, and are relegated to relative obscurity. In addition to the standard institutional concerns of copyright, these artifacts are difficult to properly digitize, and the current archival community "best practice" is to only shoot such items once at quality level that will allow virtual duplication of the object. Such a high bar is very expensive and therefore impractical, so whole collections are left without any practical way for researchers to search or browse them without paging the entire physical set. I, along with several poster curators, have begun advocating a diligent approach of "digitization for access, not for preservation" which means that creating simple reference shots upon collection intake should become the standard practice. If done properly, such shots can serve for many practical uses, and in the eventuality that a better shot is needed it can be done on a case-by-case basis. A recent collection of posters from the Chinese Cultural Revolution donated to UC Berkeley's East Asian Library - complete with digital images and preliminary catalog data - is an example of this approach.

An excellent report on this subject, Hidden Collections, Scholarly Barriers: Creating Access to Unprocessed Special Collections Materials in North America’s Research Libraries (White Paper for the Association of Research Libraries Task Force on Special Collections, June 6, 2003) pointed out that “If the 'rarely used materials' were more fully processed, they might get used more” and “Poor donor relations can result from not making collections available in a timely fashion.”

Collection digitization as a means of access must have long-term institutional support to be effective, however. In July of 2007 the Cultural Materials Initiative pilot project of the Research Libraries Group pulled the plug on numerous web catalogs, among them the vast collection of posters from the Tamiment Archive of the Bobst Library at NYU. This illustrated finding aid will now need to be rebuilt on the library's server, and is currently unavailable to researchers.

Ann Tompkins and Lincoln Cushing Chinese poster collection

The final blow for materials such as these is their political nature, which makes it even harder to find private or public funding. The list below describes just some of the rich collections at UCB that require institutional attention before they can be accessible to scholars and the public. Some important ones have recently been processed to a limited degree, such as the finding aids for Taller de Gráfica Popular (Banc Pic 1999.039) and the Nicaraguan Poster Collection (Banc Pic 999.042), but there is still an enormous backlog of work to be done.


As an example of innovative collections processing, behold the huge collection of social movement posters donated in mid-2010 to the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA). The “
All Of Us Or None” (AOUON) archive project was started by Free Speech Movement activist Michael Rossman in 1977 to gather and document the poster-work of modern progressive movements in the United States. Though earlier work is included, its focus is on the domestic political poster renaissance, which began in 1965 and continues to this day. As an example of the commitment OMCA is making to make this collection as accessible as possible as fast as possible, almost all the posters - 23,000 of them - were shot as high-resolution images by the author to be mounted on a web catalog. The collection is being cataloged in stages from the digital files, which dramatically streamlines the intake process.

Lincoln Cushing, cataloger, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley 2004-2006. Currently Archival Consultant to the All Of Us Or None Archive, Oakland Museum of California.

  • H.K.Yuen social movement archive - an enormous archive of unique Bay Area political pamphlets and audio, recently donated to the university.
  • 1970 Berkeley poster workshops - approximately 300 silkscreen posters on antiwar and social justice themes.
  • Data Center poster collection, BANC PIC 1999.087 - approximately 1,000 posters, mostly from or about Latin America, 1960s-1970s.
  • Vaughn Babcock collection of Vietnam War era posters, BANC PIC 2005.018
  • Social protest collection, 1943-1982, Bancroft BANC MSS 86/157 c
  • Chicano poster and slide collection - approximately 3,600 Chicano posters and 4,000 art slides from the 1960s and 1970s are stored at UC Berkeley's Ethnic Studies Library and UCLA's Chicano Studies Research Library. This collection has only been partially processed.
  • Chauncey Hare photograph archive [graphic], BANC PIC 2000.012; photographs of building construction sites in the San Francisco area from 1960-1980.

  • Article on Yuen collection's value, for UCB Bene Legere Spring 2006:
[Lincoln Cushing was a cataloger at the Bancroft Library involved in helping bring the collection into UC]

I'm really excited that this archive has finally made it into the U.C. library. I believe that the general public has a perception that the typical special collection here is composed of rare 17th century Mexican manuscripts or obscure Franciscan religious order microfilms from the 1930s. Although I've processed exactly these types of items, which draw scholarly if not public interest, the Yuen collection represents a sea change in the sort of stuff that we are responsible for. One could say that this archive represents a return to the Bancroft's roots. Just like Hubert Howe Bancroft, who collected contemporary political documents (including the original records of the various vigilante committees in San Francisco), H.K. Yuen was an amateur in the field moved by circumstances to take on a massive labor of love.

These are relatively recent documents, many of them unique, of a vital period in our own history that is now "old" enough to attract formal academic interest and scholarship. That's why it's a joint project between the Bancroft Library and the Ethnic Studies Library, and the Institute for the Study of Social Change was instrumental in helping with early attention to this collection.
Yuen unprocessed audiotapes

The content is breathtaking. We have the 1966 Lowndes County (Alabama) Freedom Organization brochure where the graphic later adopted by the Black Panther Party was first used. We have audiotapes - acres of reel-to-reel material - and let me tell you, there's something about hearing these live voices, something that raises the hair on the back of your neck. You are there when you listen to Bettina Aptheker tells the crowd at Sproul Plaza in 1967 "It's very interesting going to jail being six months pregnant. I think it's going to be the first kid that ever served his sentence before he sat in."

Of course, it's all a giant jumble, and will require a huge investment in time and money to fully prepare for public access, but we are starting. I hope that this collection helps draw in a new generation of donors to make that happen. Some alumni, most notably Steve Silberstein, have been very good about recognizing the importance of late 20th century social movement content in the library. It's time for others to step up and help support the work needed to process these materials.

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updated 4/23/2021