The Queer Digital History Project
A Conversation with Avery Dame-Griff
Posted on in Ask an Archivist
Posted on December 20, 2021 in Ask an Archivist
Choice sits down with Edward Galloway and David Grinnell of the University of Pittsburgh Library System to discuss the American Left Ephemera Digital Collection. Founded by Pittsburgh history professor Dr. Richard Oestreicher, the archive consists of pamphlets, posters, flyers, and other short-term objects created or used by 20th-century American Leftists movements. Edward and David detail the collection’s history, digitization process, and favorite items, as well as the advantages of a digital collection in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Richard also joins the conversation to share the collection’s origins and his hopes for student and faculty use. He closes with reflections on the varying popularity of Leftist movements in the past century—how have socialist or communist ideals survived up to today?
Edward Galloway and David Grinnell: When describing the American Left Collection, particularly to undergraduate students, we often make the comparison to contemporary movements like Occupy Wall Street, #MeToo, and Black Lives Matter. These movements are grounded in change. They give voice and agency to the oppressed and those victimized by public policy, or those with power over the lives and livelihoods of groups of Americans. These modern movements share information about their demonstrations and issue statements of the problems they seek to redress through social media and visual means of communication.
We like to say that the American Left Collection documents 20th-century social and political movements that fought against the oppression and exploitation of Americans following the industrialization and concentration of power in early 20th-century society. Communication was different in that organizers used handbills and posters to spread the word about gatherings. They were often posted on bulletin boards or telephone poles around a community of people who would potentially be influenced and helped by their cause. Once these gatherings took place, organizers would widely distribute literature in the form of pamphlets, periodicals, and small books; these expressed grievances and promoted actions that the organizations saw as necessary to influence or cause change. Ultimately, the American Left Collection documents movements that sought to transform American society into a fairer and more equitable form where all had equal opportunity. These movements sought to bridge the gaps between the wealthy and powerful and those who had few resources through no fault of their own.
EG/DG: The original audience was Dr. Oestreicher’s history students at the University of Pittsburgh. Through his personal collecting efforts, he amassed a sizeable collection of this Leftist ephemera and wanted his students to be able to consult and study it. But how does a professor share his private collection with students in a secure manner? That’s when Dr. Oestreicher approached the University of Pittsburgh Library System about partnering to digitize and make accessible to Pitt students and those beyond the material he had collected. Our early efforts resulted in a small portion of the collection being selectively scanned and shared online. As our relationship grew, Dr. Oestreicher decided to donate his collection to Archives & Special Collections, and that spurred us to consider embarking on a larger project to digitize the bulk of the material.
EG/DG: We worked closely with Dr. Oestreicher to organize and arrange the collection. He had not previously done this, but was glad to impart his knowledge of the collection by creating the overarching categories. He then went as far as to help “tag” each item so that we knew its appropriate place. Over about a two-year period, several undergraduate history students worked with us as interns to help process the collection and work with Dr. Oestreicher. Not all the material came from Dr. Oestreicher at once, so we did have to incorporate additional material from time to time. We welcomed his hands-on approach, since he brought his subject expertise to the project.
EG/DG: In the past, many of us experienced our history courses through required reading of textbooks and articles. By collecting and integrating these flyers, handbills, pamphlets, periodicals, and booklets into his teaching, Dr. Oestreicher put primary sources into the hands of his students. Empowering students to read the words of these organizers can result in a couple of outcomes. Firstly, they can draw conclusions on their own about the movement, its communications, and why it was successful or not. Secondly, utilizing these types of sources in the classroom situates students in the place and time of the original events—it helps make the situations real. Therefore, they can get a glimpse of what it may have been like to make decisions about participation in such organizations. They’re able to ask more insightful questions because they now view it from a different perspective than simply reading about it from a textbook or academic article.
Another important factor is that introducing primary sources to students promotes critical thinking skills. It makes the idea of using original documents in one’s own research less mysterious. Thinking back over the years of working in the archival setting, we’ve experienced huge changes in who comes to our reading rooms to access archival materials. No longer is it the domain of just professors or graduate students—it is researchers from all walks of life. Thus, more and more individuals have been empowered to utilize archival sources to inform their own knowledge.
EG/DG: As a result of the pandemic, we have seen an exponential increase in the use of our digitized collections by Pitt students and beyond. For example, one year prior to the pandemic (2019), the American Left Ephemera Collection received more than 8,700 unique visitors, but during the pandemic (2020) this number jumped to over 23,000 visitors for an increase of 167 percent. Content views also increased from 19,000 to nearly 53,000—an increase of 178 percent! This is a trend we see across all our digital collections; views of our digitized content increased by 105 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. In fact, out of the 350-plus collections we serve online, the ephemera collection was our sixth most popular collection.
We have supported a cohort of undergraduate students for the past five years in a program we call Archival Scholars Research Award (ASRA). ASRA enables typically 10 students to explore their interest in our collections by conducting in-person research at our facility. COVID upended that, but we transitioned to offer the same experience by using our digital collections instead. While students lamented the fact that they could not see or handle the primary source material themselves, they were amazed by the online offering of so many collections that met their research needs.
EG/DG: Ephemeral materials are often far less formal than many other types of archival resources—minutes, reports, diaries, correspondence, etc. With formality comes a carefully crafted message in suitable language—which at times is created to obfuscate—for more permanent consumption by both the records’ creators and their intended audience, which is usually intimately associated with those creators. On the other hand, these ephemeral documents were created for wider consumption to attract participation in an event, organization, or cause. What are the implications of that? They are often printed quickly and inexpensively, which can cause preservation issues due to the quality of materials used in the process (i.e., they don’t often survive). They are written in expressive language easy to comprehend—headlines like: “This Man Will Die without Your Help.” These attract attention instantly.
Thinking about the student audience that Dr. Oestreicher intended these materials for, we think the value was to show that American society of the past was not a cohesive body of people; there was a lot of diversity in thought and approaches to life, both politically and socially. While we recognize that today people in the world have many competing political and social issues to be concerned with, that fact was also true of the last century. And some of those same issues remain into the present.
EG/DG: During the Great Depression and the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt was considered by many political figures of the day to have shifted the federal government away from a democracy to a more socialist form with a large bureaucratic system. Roosevelt argued that the government derived its power from the people, and that caring for the people during their times of need was essential for the survival of the nation. It is perhaps the diversity of these Leftist organizations’ messages and missions outside of the political mainstream that helped bring focus to ongoing problems in society. These issues could then be reconciled through action and incorporated into the platforms of political parties in power; good examples of these programs include Social Security, Fair Housing, and Unemployment Benefits. Looking back to the socialist and communist movements in America in the early 20th century, we see how they influenced thinking on the federal government’s role. While the majority of their party platforms would never be adopted by the Democratic or Republican parties in the US, some indeed helped shape the thinking of the dominant political structure. However, perhaps many Americans may be hesitant to see these connections.
EG/DG: Recently, we have stressed the importance of collecting histories of African Americans and their life experiences. Many were influenced by the rise of Black nationalism and “The Legacy of Slavery and the Roots of Black Nationalism” by Eugene D. Genovese reflects those concerns. We find it interesting that this document is in the American Left Ephemera Collection.
EG/DG: This question is really in the domain of the teaching and research faculty, but from an archival perspective, we think we can draw a clear connection between today’s movements and the struggles of America’s working-class citizens throughout time. When the disparities between the powerful and the powerless grow, we see movements like these emerge and gain momentum. It is very cyclical—there may be times when these issues don’t resonate, and then there are times when the weight of survival and the expectation of what life should be like in our society is in conflict. Right now, we are seeing this conflict being played out daily in Washington, Harrisburg, and all over this country. Can we learn something from the past movements? Undoubtedly! But someone who wants to wrestle with these issues needs to know the sources are available. Further, whether their perspective is aligned with a Blue state or a Red state may very well influence how they utilize these historic documents.
Ed Galloway is the Associate University Librarian for Archives & Special Collections at the University of Pittsburgh Library System. He provides administrative oversight of the personnel, collections, services, budget, and activities of the Archives & Special Collections department and Area Studies unit. He oversees digitization efforts to build digital collections of unique material, and efforts within the Digital Curation and Preservation unit to develop strategies for accessioning, appraising, processing, and providing research access to electronic files as they pertain to archival collections. He holds an MLIS is from the University of Texas at Austin.
David R. Grinnell is the Coordinator of Archives and Manuscript Collections at the University of Pittsburgh Library System, where he has worked for the last 10 years. A native of Michigan, he holds a BA in History from Albion College (Michigan) and an MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh. In his position, two of his most fulfilling roles are working with community researchers and connecting them with resources found on Pitt’s Historic Pittsburgh Site, and connecting faculty and students in ways that promote exploration and discovery with the archives and manuscript collections for their coursework.
Richard Oestreicher: I was a collector of various items since childhood (e.g., stamps and coins, baseball cards, comic books). In graduate school, I began collecting 19th-century photography and political campaign items. I discovered early photography when my future spouse invited me for dinner at her apartment, and she had a daguerreotype sitting on an end table. Soon thereafter she took me to a large antique show where a collector offered me a Debs pin (Eugene V. Debs—five-time Socialist Party presidential candidate whom I had long admired). I was hooked.
In discussions with collectors, I learned about organizations for photographica collectors and political collectors, and that they held trade fairs. As I expanded my collection, I acquired duplicate and excess items. I booked tables at trade fairs to sell and thereby cover the cost of my habit. At these events, I learned a great deal about the world of antique collectibles—about collector publications and national organizations, about the price structures of collector specialties and what was in demand, and the most important people in the fields. I think the professional skills I developed in graduate school—an energetic frame of mind, a willingness to take financial risk for large purchases—made me an especially fast learner. I quickly rose to some prominence within the fields I collected. I was among the founding members of the National Stereoscopic Society (for collectors of 3-D photography, of interest because stereo cards were perhaps the most important medium for 19th-century historical photography), the National Photo-Historical Society, and an early member of the American Political Items Collectors. I focused on items that linked with my professional interest in labor history and my political activism and interest in the Left. I founded a Labor History Chapter of the American Political Items and edited a small journal for the chapter’s several dozen members.
At first my wife and I had both survived on graduate assistantships that only paid during the nine-month school year. We began dealing antiques to supplement our income, developing a junior partnership with a local antique dealer and exhibiting at large outdoor summer antique fairs. We continued this after graduate school, and discovered the world of book and paper shows. These shows represented a breakthrough for me to the world of bibliophiles and ephemerists. I recognized that my historical expertise gave me a comparative advantage here as well as wider access to labor and Left history ephemera. I also discovered that most political and labor history collectors wanted pins and ribbons. While I also collected those items, the historian in me gravitated to other forms of ephemera like leaflets, pamphlets, letters, posters, and photographs that struck me as deeper sources of insight and information. Dealers eagerly sold or traded with me. For example, I traded a small group of 1920s jazz posters to a Philadelphia book dealer for an important collection of IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) pamphlets.
Our ephemera business took a quantum leap with two events in the 1990s: my wife lost a good paying job (and we now had a family to support), and we discovered eBay and online buying and selling. We started a large-scale auction catalogue business with bidding by mail, phone, and internet on American social history and social movements—including Black history, ethnic history, women’s history, labor history, historical photography, history of the west, political history, and left-wing social movements. My wife produced elaborately illustrated glossy catalogues that went out to more than a thousand customers, and produced hundreds of bidders for each sale. We advertised widely in major antique publications and actively solicited consignment, which came flooding in. I bid on some of the left-wing ephemera, and expanded my collection. Ebay also proved to be an important source. For example, I discovered the son of a former Daily Worker editor on eBay who was disposing of his father’s collection. By the time we sold the business in 2000 I had accumulated much of what would become the American Left Ephemera Collection.
RO: As a historian, I was familiar with archival preservation. In the ephemera world many people similarly had sensitivity to careful storage and preservation. For example, at paper and book shows retailers specializing in archival quality storage materials did a brisk business, which I took advantage of. I filed items within categories that made historical sense to me and generally kept records of where I had acquired items. This made the transition relatively easy once I decided to donate the collection to the University of Pittsburgh Archives and Special Collections.
RO: First, books were already well-represented in libraries. Ephemera, except for papers of notable people, generally were not. Ephemera appealed to me as an entrée into the workings of movements and the world of the rank and file. Also, ephemera, with some exceptions, were readily available at modest prices.
RO: I had already begun using many items from the collection in my teaching well before I donated to the Archives. Indeed, this teaching use is what established the initial relationship with Ed Galloway before my donation. Under Ed’s leadership, the archives had begun to solicit faculty input on the digitization of collections for use in teaching. I asked the Archives staff to digitize a small selection from the collection for student use in my courses. That led to discussions about donation.
I found the digitized version of the collection breathtaking for teaching. I taught writing seminars on the history of the American Left and on radical culture in the 1930s and 1960s. I frequently asked students to pick items from the collection relevant to the day’s topic and be prepared to discuss what the items taught them. The digitized collection also gave students ready access to a wealth of primary sources for their papers. Once they had become accustomed to using the collection, they also became more energetic in following up leads to other relevant online collections I made them aware of.
I imagine that digitization will be the key to future research use. Indeed, it was the willingness of Ed Galloway and his staff to digitize nearly all of the collection that made me comfortable with donating.
RO: Because of the American two-party system, left-wing organizations always had limited visibility within the electoral system—one of the primary arenas in which many Americans familiarize themselves with political ideas. Yet, left-wing thought always had far greater impact than the weakness of the electoral Left suggested. In part that was because the values Leftists embraced resonated with broad American ideals. At many points in American history conservative demagogues did seek to tar left-wing ideas as un-American, but Leftists frequently pushed back with an alternative left-wing Americanism arguing that their egalitarian values—inalienable rights and collective action in pursuit of those rights for all—were the true heritage of the American Revolution. Left-wing Americanism had an especially significant impact among writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, and photographers in the Progressive and New Deal eras. Some of this heritage was temporarily erased during the height of the Cold War, but it has resurfaced energetically in recent decades. America has always had a divided soul, and I anticipate that Left and Right will continue to battle each other with conflicting claims about who best represents the American Dream.
Richard Oestreicher received his Ph.D. from Michigan State in 1979. After short stints teaching at Michigan State and Arizona State, he taught at the University of Pittsburgh from 1980 until his retirement at the end of 2017. He taught courses in US history, world history, working class history, the history of the American Left, and US popular culture. His publications include Solidarity and Fragmentation: Working People and Class Consciousness in Detroit, 1875-1900 (U. of Illinois Press, 1986) and “Urban Working-Class Political Behavior and Theories of American Electoral Politics, 1870-1940” (Journal Of American History, 1988), which won the Binkley-Stevenson award for best article in the JAH. Oestreicher wrote most of the metadata for the American Left Ephemera Collection. He now lives in Taos, New Mexico.
This interview was conducted by Sabrina Cofer. She is the digital media assistant at Choice.
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