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Announcing ASAP: Archiving Student Activism at Princeton

Next Thursday and Friday, the Princeton University Archives will host a collecting drive to launch ASAP: Archiving Student Activism at Princeton, an initiative that seeks to collect and preserve individual and organizational records created by Princeton students who engage in activism on a broad range of issues and perspectives, both on campus and off. We hope students will drop by our table in Frist Campus Center between 11:00 am and 2:00 pm on Thursday, December 10, or come visit us between 1:00 pm and 3:00 pm at Mudd Library on Friday, December 11, to drop off their records. You can find details of ASAP here. In this post, I want to explain 1) why the University Archives is launching this initiative now and 2) why you as students should consider depositing your records.

Before reading any further, stop and ask yourself: what is the purpose of the Princeton University Archives? Is it to preserve pieces of Princeton’s past for posterity? Or is it to provide reference assistance to researchers, including students who consult senior theses? Or, is the purpose to collect new records that are created today?

First Charter in Board of Trustees Minutes
Charter of the College of New Jersey, in Board of Trustees Minutes, Vol. 1. (Board of Trustees Records (AC120). See the first 8 volumes of the Board of Trustees Minutes in the Princeton University Digital Library (PUDL).

Actually, the University Archives serves all three of those functions. I break down our tasks as archivists to this: select, save, and serve. The focus on gathering records of student activism connects directly to our first function, which is to select historical materials. Ellen Swain, a professor and archivist at the University of Illinois, argues in a 2004 article that archivists must engage students through innovate outreach not just to provide better reference assistance (serve) but also to view students as creators of historical records (selection). Swain’s quotation of the historian Frederick Rudolf is especially relevant:

“Students…are the most creative and imaginative force in the shaping of the American college and university.”

If you accept Rudolf’s claim, rendering an accurate historical portrayal of our campus becomes improbable without records created by students and for students. Sharpening the lens of that student experience onto activism highlights the pathbreaking work many Princeton students lead locally as well as internationally. In a sense, ASAP is simply a response to an extended tradition of Princeton students using activism to enhance the lived experiences of fellow Princetonians and the general public.

Nassau Hall anti-apartheid protest, April 1978, Princeton Alumni Weekly Photograph Collection, AC126, Box 33.

Those efforts justify, I think, a good case for students donating their records of activism to the University Archives. You matter. Your experience matters. Your activism matters. Researchers use archival records for a number of reasons; to write papers or books, to produce films, or to complete genealogy. Investing in the University Archives with donations of your records places yourself and your work in the genealogy of the Princeton tradition, which of course means different things to different people. That diversity of perspective strengthens the University and enriches its traditions. The records you or your organization create–the meeting notes, the membership lists, the photographs, the emails–will be the raw evidence future Princetonians and researchers use to understand that experience. More immediately, depositing these records provides a direct benefit to the causes you or your organization champion by enabling future you’s at the U a chance to access essential information about the things you’re doing today. Are you concerned about privacy and confidentiality of these records? That’s normal. We can embargo (restrict) access to records deposited via ASAP for up to 20 years.

As I’ve explained on this blog before, my role at the University is to ensure that its born-digital archival records are around and readable years into the future. The University Archives is proactively collecting these records as soon as possible (ASAP) precisely because the luxury of waiting 20 years to collect them is a thing of the past for archivists. The fragile and volatile nature of digital information doesn’t afford us (or you) the chance to gather these Google docs, Dropbox files, or iPhone videos decades from now because operating systems evolve, storage limits vary, and file formats progress. With technology, one constant guarantee is change, so the University Archives must keep pace with that. You, too, are making changes at Princeton and across the world through your activism. It’s history before our eyes, and ASAP is one small attempt to make sure that these histories aren’t lost to, well, history. You can change that, and judging by your record, I’m confident you will.

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