Radical archives continue to inspire, enhance scholarly work around globe

September 6, 2018

By Emily Buckler 

Researcher looks at book.
2018 Fellow Andrea Steves. | Photo by Alan Piñon

The chants from the street could be heard all the way up on the sixth floor of the Hatcher Graduate Library.

It was early August, and Timothy Furstnau’s first day of research using the Labadie Collection, the country's oldest publicly accessible archive documenting the history of social protest movements and marginalized political communities.

It also happened to coincide with Michigan’s primary election day.

“It was this really strange wonderful moment when I had a folder in front of me,” said Furstnau, who lives in Oakland, California, “and I was reading about historical activism. And then I could hear it coming through the window. I looked over at someone and asked, ‘Do you know what that's about?’ and they said, ‘I don't know, but it happens here all the time.’”

Unearthing ‘common struggles’
Furstnau studied the collection for several weeks with his collaborator, Andrea Steves, who together under the moniker FICTILIS were one of a handful of researchers awarded a Heidrich Fellowship this year to advance special projects benefiting from significant use of Labadie materials.

The duo — both U-M alums — are curators and founders of the Museum of Capitalism, an exhibition staged as a museum that invites visitors to imagine a society in which the capitalist system is obsolete. Its items include a hand-cranked machine that spits out pennies at the rate of minimum wage (in Michigan, that would be $9.25 for an hour of crank-turning), and a collection of banners that bear the logos of bankrupt financial institutions. The project, now exhibiting in Boston, has garnered press from outlets like The New Yorker, CityLab, and VICE.

“Our approach to the museum is, for lack of a better word, intersectional,” Furstnau said. “We’re interested in previous eras that have these similarities to the present, whether it's the levels of income inequality, or popular interest in socialism, or the belief in the benevolence of capitalist philanthropy to solve social problems.

“The Labadie Collection does something, whether intentionally or not, that we very intentionally try to do with the Museum of Capitalism project, which is gather these different struggles and make them legible as common struggles, and explore their intersections and similarities.”

Two Heidrich fellows read from a book in the library's Labadie Collection.
Andrea Steves, foreground, and Timothy Furstnau examine a book from the Labadie Collection in U-M Library's Special Collections Research Center. | Photo by Alan Piñon.

Discovering rare archival content
For his research into how digital communications transformed transgender politics through the 1990s and 2000s, Avery Dame-Griff also reflected on how contemporary events "have antecedents." The assistant professor of mass communication at Winona State University spent time in Labadie's National Transgender Library & Archive this June examining how early computer bulletin board systems — essentially, pre-internet digital networks — allowed transgender users to share information, discuss political issues, and organize nationwide.

“Trans folks were building networks and using digital communications well before the ‘World Wide Web,’” he said, discussing his time in the archives. “And by having a historical perspective, you can see how the internet transformed the movement. The in-person group model, which had been the de-facto organizing principle since the 1960s, didn't fully translate for those just coming out [as transgender] in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

"So you can also see groups going through an existential crisis in their newsletters: how do we survive in an environment where folks don't feel like they need us anymore? But digital communications ultimately didn't change individuals’ basic need for affirmation and support — instead, they just found it in different spaces.”

His findings have been integrated into an upcoming presentation at the 2018 National Women’s Studies Association conference in Atlanta, and will be featured in a chapter of his proposed book with MIT Press, "The Two Revolutions: Building Transgender Networks Online."

Researcher examines material at the library's Labadie Collection.
Primary source material from the Labadie Collection. | Photo by Alan Piñon.

Forthcoming books
Other Heidrich fellows visiting the collection this year included journalist Lewis Wallace — who was fired in 2017 from his job at Marketplace, the national public radio program, after writing a personal blog post about the difficulty of remaining neutral in a political climate of “alternative facts,” rising white supremacy, and transphobia — and Krzysztof Wasilewski, who traveled to the library from western Poland to examine its vast holdings of radical newspapers and other materials produced by American radicals like Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman.

Both scholars have upcoming books enhanced by their time in the collection. Wasilewski, who is in the midst of publishing a book in Poland about how American newspapers depicted immigrants and immigration from 1875–1924, is continuing his examination with an English-language book on turn-of-the-century radical discourse around nationalism, ethnicity, and immigration. And Wallace’s book on the myth of objectivity in journalism is anticipated out by the University of Chicago Press in early 2019.

Applications for this year’s Heidrich Fellowship are due Friday, Sept. 28.

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Last modified: 10/24/2018