A look inside the Newberry Library protest archive

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AIMEE LEVITT
  • Aimee Levitt

It isn't often that archivists get a chance to issue specific requests for historical materials. Most of the time, they're dependent on the kindness of strangers, or at least collectors who've been generous enough to donate their papers and ephemera to the library.

But in the case of the Women's Marches on Washington and Chicago in January, the archive staff at the Newberry Library had plenty of warning that something was about to happen that would likely be of interest to researchers 50 or 100 years in the future. So a few days before the march, they sent out an all-staff e-mail requesting signs, banners, pussy hats, and anything else people happened to come across. Then the communications department put the call out on Twitter.


Though the Newberry has been collecting contemporary protest materials for the past few years—particularly from the #BlackLivesMatter movement—it had never tried crowdsourcing materials before. The result was overwhelming. "We're really thrilled," says Martha Briggs, the library's curator of modern manuscripts. "I see a lot of crowdsourcing in our future."

All donors had the option of submitting a short narrative with their posters, and many of them have. "It's a personal touch," says Catherine Grandgeorge, a processing archivist.

Archivist Catherine Grandgeorge and a puppet - AIMEE LEVITT
  • Aimee Levitt
  • Archivist Catherine Grandgeorge and a puppet

Among the materials that came in were many posters featuring Beyoncé, a pile of pussy hats in different shades of pink (plus knitting instructions), a quilt, a puppet, a sash that said "Radiate Love," a self-published children's book called The Adventures of KITTY CAT The Billion $$ Power Ball Winner, a crown that read "We are watching you Donald Trump you fucking maniac," and a poster from the D.C. march donated by Heather Newberry Lord—"Yes, I'm YOUR Newberry!"

"There's an amazing range of creativity," Briggs says.

At the moment, the materials have been stored in a small room in the warehouselike stacks building behind the main library. There are piles of posters carried by Chicagoans in Chicago and posters carried by Chicagoans in D.C. The smaller pieces, like the pussy hats, have been neatly filed away in cardboard boxes. Everything needs to be photographed and digitized before it's permanently archived.

Marabou feathers provide a conservation challenge. - AIMEE LEVITT
  • Aimee Levitt
  • Marabou feathers provide a conservation challenge.

"It's a conservation challenge," says Alison Hinderliter, a manuscripts and archives librarian. "We're used to books that have been damaged by pests. Now we have marabou and glitter."

The library has also been soliciting photos of the marches and protests and has so far collected 958 digital images, which should be searchable in the near future. Some of the posters also appear in photos, so future researchers can see how they appeared in the wild.

An urban gardening guide provides precise measurements for stickering stop signs and parking meters. - AIMEE LEVITT
  • Aimee Levitt
  • An urban gardening guide provides precise measurements for stickering stop signs and parking meters.

The Newberry has a long history of collecting protest materials. "It's one of our prime collecting areas," Briggs says. A quick trip through the climate-controlled stacks turns up a pamphlet billed as an urban gardening guide (actually instructions for putting stickers on public property and replacing ads on the New York City subway), leaflets for events protesting the second Iraq War, a Students for a Democratic Society newsletter, and signs from the 60s advertising an "Anti-Mil Ball" ("Swords Optional") and an "Anarchist-Pacifist Book Sale" ("Read the Books Hitler Burned").
Although the library has some historic materials from the right, including pamphlets published by the America First Committee and surveillance reports from the 1968 Democratic Convention, the archive of contemporary materials is very thin.

"Our mission is to gain the trust of conservative groups and make them realize their stuff is important too," Briggs says. In other words, she'd be thrilled if someone sent in a "Make America Great Again" trucker hat.

Nobody expects the current wave of protests to die down anytime soon. The Newberry has already begun soliciting materials for the upcoming Tax Day protests and the March for Science.

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