Archives, education, and access: learning at interference archive.

Author:Gordon, Bonnie



Archives are a tool for education, and the access policy of an archive affects what kind of education takes place in its space. In this paper, we describe how Interference Archive (IA), a community archive in Brooklyn, New York, creates unique educational opportunities by providing access through a radical access policy based on open stacks and experiential learning. These means of access are intended to subvert representational power by allowing visitors, donors, and volunteers to take part in deciding how histories are told, how materials are accessed, and how the collection is re-used as a resource for learning about contemporary and historical social movements.

We lay groundwork for how the radical nature of our access policy provides space for unique education opportunities through a brief history of IA and an introduction to its collections and day-to-day work. We'll provide context for how access typically plays out in archives and contrast this with how collection access at IA, through a variety of means, shapes our work and is a tool for education and mobilization.


The authors of this paper are regular volunteers at IA; it is important to recognize that in speaking as "we", we are four voices and perspectives among many at IA. Bonnie Gordon is an archivist who volunteers her time by working with the online catalog and administrative support. Lani Hanna works at the farmer's market while pursuing graduate studies and primarily volunteers on exhibitions, audio archiving, and administrative support at IA. Jen Hoyer is a librarian and musician who volunteers her efforts towards cataloging and fundraising. Vero Ordaz came to IA while she was a student in American Studies at Brooklyn College. She expanded her classroom education through IA and supports the archive as she can.

About Interference Archive

The mission of IA is to explore the relationship between cultural production and social movements as a way to tackle social and political issues. We bring together people interested in social change, such as educators, artists, activists, archivists, and community organizers. We offer a study center and public programs including exhibitions, workshops, talks, and screenings, all of which are free and open to the public.

The archival collection at IA grew out of the personal collections of its founders, Josh MacPhee and Dara Greenwald, who amassed an extensive collection through their involvement in social movements over the preceding 25 years. Along with collaborators Molly Fair and Kevin Caplicki, they opened IA in December 2011 as a public archive where movement participants with firsthand knowledge about the material could play a role in organizing and describing this collection.

In 2016, IA has established itself in New York City's activist scene as well as in a national and international network of activists and community archives. IA is located in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, in two rented rooms on the ground floor of a converted industrial building that houses other studios and offices. One room houses the archival collections as well as some study space. The second room is used for exhibitions and public programming; it can comfortably fit 35 chairs for a talk or film screening. Sections of the exhibition room are partitioned off as co-working space; this rent subsidizes the rent of IA and provides work space for groups and individuals whose interests connect with those of IA. The building is situated close to three major subway lines and, while we see regular visits from New Yorkers, we have a steady stream of visitors from around the globe who have included IA in their travel plans because they are interested in our work or for research purposes. IA is open to the public four days per week, with at least one volunteer staff member available during each open shift. Additional events and meetings keep the archive open three or four evenings per week. Through a combination of regular open hours, programming, and exhibition openings, we see anywhere from 30 to 300 visitors to the archive each week.

Increased attention to IA's work has resulted in collection growth through regular donations. IA's collection policy encompasses the cultural production of social movements--posters and prints, buttons, t-shirts, periodicals, pamphlets, zines, books, moving images, audio recordings, and other ephemera produced in multiples. Our collection development policy does not favor any political agenda, but IA's policy of open stacks access, which we'll describe in more detail through this paper, affects what we collect. The intent is not to develop a collection of material that has been designated as "radical" by a certain community, movement or individual, though many materials may fall into that category. Instead, the radical nature of IA's work lies in this open access policy and a focus on public facing programming that radically shifts the communities and individuals who have access to the history recorded in this archival material.

IA is run completely by volunteers; there are no paid staff. We aim to operate along similar lines to the organizational structures of many of the social movements represented in our collection: these are largely nonhierarchical, consensus-based groups from the political left. Initially run by a core collective, IA's volunteer community has evolved into a network of working groups that each focus on different projects or tasks. These include the Admin, Cataloging, Audio, Born Digital, Education, and Fundraising working groups, as well as ad hoc groups that come together to develop exhibitions. All labor at Interference Archive is volunteer and commitments vary depending on an individual's desire and availability. Operating on volunteer energy necessitates careful budgeting of labor. At IA we choose to focus our labor in ways that serve experiential access. The majority of our labor at present is focused toward regular open hours and educational programming, including exhibitions, talks, and workshops.

Access at Interference Archive

Open access is a priority at IA. Open collection access means visitors can drop by anytime during our open hours and work with material themselves. They do not need to make an appointment to come see the collection, and institutional credentials are not required for access to the material.


We prioritize open access because it creates opportunities for experiential education, which we define as direct interaction with archival material as the basis for educational programming and learning opportunities that are of benefit to any visitor, whether they would take the formal title of "student" or not.

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