Extremism @ the Library

Reprinted courtesy of: American Libraries Magazine

By: Maria R. Traska

Bring up the subject of extremist literature and hate propaganda, and the first mental image most people are likely to have is of waves of protesters, livid Holocaust deniers, and the ACLU defending free speech. Curating such material takes a special brand of fortitude.

Radical literature that calls for destroying the status quo and hate speech that assaults various demographic groups may well be uncomfortable to read, but study of the human condition wouldn’t be honest or complete if it didn’t take a hard, thorough look into humanity’s darker corners. On the other hand, maintaining collections for that kind of scholarship without providing free publicity to precisely the wrong element can be a tricky thing.

“I don’t want to be the megaphone for these guys,” says Will Hansen, assistant curator of collections at Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. However, Duke got considerable attention in 2013 when the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Intelligence Project donated its extensive collection of materials documenting extremist and hate groups in the United States to Duke. SPLC is a nonprofit organization that supports racial equality through tolerance education, civil rights litigation, and monitoring of extremist organizations. The center’s Intelligence Project monitors hate groups and other extremists throughout the United States and exposes any suspected illegal activities to law enforcement agencies, the media, and the public.

The SPLC Intelligence Project Collection consists of nearly 90 boxes of printed materials, serials, organizational literature, pamphlets, clippings, catalogs, fliers, and correspondence from a variety of groups monitored by the SPLC and its contacts between the 1980s and 2010. The collection—comprising more than 85,500 items in all—covers many groups followed by the SPLC Klanwatch and Militia Watch projects.

A year later, that material is already being well used. “We’re pretty close to cataloging the entire collection,” and scholars have had access for a while, says Hansen. For that matter, he adds, “a number of classes have used the material” as well.

Hansen says there has been much positive reaction so far regarding the acquisition. There was a bit of protest at first about the library’s relationship with SPLC from people who mistakenly thought the university was somehow aligning itself with the civil rights organization. This protest came mostly from groups that thought themselves unfairly maligned in the past by the law center, Hansen notes. This was a misunderstanding, Hansen says, because Duke doesn’t align itself in any way, and the library is interested only in making materials available for research. The protest was a token reaction, in any case. “Most people understand why we’re collecting this material,” he says.

Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project, says that the center is glad it chose Duke to receive the material. “These relatively rare materials will finally be made available to scholars who research America’s radical right. We look forward to learning from their scholarship.” 

Beirich adds that white supremacist opposition to civil rights, documented in the collection, was a very important part of American history that should not be forgotten. It continues to exist, she notes, albeit with a much smaller social presence than before. Once, however, white supremacy was a majority view, and some prominent historical figures subscribed to it, Beirich points out. Not even white abolitionists, despite opposing slavery on moral grounds, necessarily believed that the races were equal. In fact, most didn’t.

Since SPLC had made this material available to scholars in the past, why donate it to Duke? Too much paper, Beirich replies. “We’ve digitized everything, but we still had the hard copy.” Plus, Duke already had an extremist-literature collection. “They had the resources to quickly catalog the material and make it available” to scholars and others.

“We had the start of a collection” surrounding Ku Klux Klan (KKK) propaganda, Hansen says. After he arrived about six years ago, Hansen began building on those holdings. Another factor in Duke’s favor, he says, was that the library has a human rights archivist, Patrick Stawski. As for the negotiations, Hansen says, “We approached them first, then nothing happened for a while, then they approached us.”

Radical research troves

SPLC previously had made a similar gift of documents to Baylor University’s W. R. Poage Legislative Library, but that was before Beirich joined the organization in 1999. Baylor’s SPLC collection consists of anti-KKK materials that were donated in 1995 by a Baylor student who wanted to see a balance in materials related to extremist organizations, which were formerly all pro-extremist.

The Radicalism Collection at Michigan State University (MSU) Libraries in East Lansing isn’t one extremist-literature collection—it’s really eight different ones. The oldest among them was founded in the 1950s, before MSU even had a special collections department, according to the libraries’ website. In fact, the Special Collections section didn’t debut until 1962 when the library began collecting material on MSU student activism. In all, MSU’s extremist-literature collections have more than 40,000 items, says Peter Berg, head of special collections. It’s also one of the oldest and best known extremist-literature collections, he says.

Moreover, MSU has received no flak regarding these holdings, probably because they cover the full range of extremist viewpoints, from far right to far left, Berg says. “We’ve always promoted it in such a way that it’s known primarily for scholarship.”

Sarah Shoemaker is also proud of her university’s extremist-literature collections and the extent to which the library makes them available. Shoemaker is associate university librarian at Brandeis University’s Robert D. Farber University Archives and Special Collections. She has no problem with publicizing the extremist-literature collections—quite the contrary. “We want people to know what we have. We want people to use it. It’s here for scholarship.”

The MSU and Brandeis extremist-literature collections are well known among academics, and Duke’s collection is certainly better known since the publicity from last year’s acquisition. But many other collections keep a low profile. How many are out there? It’s hard to tell because some libraries don’t necessarily want to draw attention to their extremist-literature collections lest they draw the wrong kinds of users. According to the 38th edition of the Directory of Special Libraries and Information Centers, there are probably at least 30–35 such collections; the directory lists 18 collections under the headings of racism, anti-Semitism, and the KKK, plus another 12 under the heading of race relations.

Paper, not pixels

Duke’s library won’t be digitizing the SPLC Collection. Why? First, because the law center already did that before handing over the collection to Duke; second, because of the labor and copyright issues involved; and third, because the library doesn’t necessarily want to attract the wrong potential users of the material—as in those with extremist views who seek historical material that they feel can somehow justify their own philosophy.

It’s one thing to make hard-copy material available to academic and independent researchers and quite another to digitize it and thus be a conduit for making the material widely available—in effect, helping the propagandists broaden their reach online, Hansen says. Keeping the hard copy “hard” is more in line with the university’s and library’s goals. “Mostly only scholars are going to make that kind of effort to physically visit and use an archive.”

Indeed, scholars are the overwhelming majority of those who use Duke’s special collections and archives. The same is true at MSU and Brandeis. Berg and Shoemaker report that their most likely users are the usual suspects: students, faculty, and outside scholars.

“Brandeis has a focus on social justice, so anyone studying political dissent, American history, and related subjects would find these materials useful,” Shoemaker says. At Brandeis, there are two extreme-literature archives; the Hall-Hoag Collection, which has more than 5,000 far-left and far-right pamphlets from 1948 to 1984, and the Radical Pamphlet Collection, which totals more than 4,800 items of US and British origin from 1888 through 1976 but concentrates on 1938–1950. Shoemaker adds that Brown University’s library has an identically named Hall-Hoag collection of extremist literature.

The biggest problem Berg says he’s had with MSU’s propaganda collections is the same one that libraries have with most archives: physical preservation of materials. “A lot of this material was inexpensively produced and in mass quantities. Most were put out on the cheapest paper possible. They weren’t meant to last the ages,” he says. The library usually has to deacidify paper copies and store materials in archival envelopes, as if they were fine photo prints. “It’s the same thing we do for almost anything we get for preservation.”

For Shoemaker, the biggest challenge in maintaining an extremist-literature collection is no different than for any other physical holdings: “Making others aware that we have it and doing outreach.” The other challenge is context. “Most often we provide context to students who haven’t been exposed to such material or points of view,” because the sentiments expressed in the collection can be very disturbing, she says. “Teaching with these materials is always interesting and does require some explanation.”

On the other hand, Shoemaker adds, “Brandeis students are very smart, very intellectual. We’re not making these [materials] available in a vacuum. The materials can be very difficult to work with, but they’re there for a certain purpose,” namely historical preservation and academic research.

Beirich points to at least two books whose authors used SPLC’s collection for at least part of their research. One is Political Science Professor George Michael’s biography of right-wing extremist Willis Carto, founder of the Liberty Lobby. That book, Willis Carto and the American Far Right, was published by the University Press of Florida in 2008. Michael is an extremism expert at the University of Virginia’s Wise campus. His latest book, Lone Wolf Terror and the Rise of Leaderless Resistance, was released in 2012 by Vanderbilt University Press.

The second book Beirich mentioned is forthcoming from Harvard University Press: Bring the War Home: Vigilantism, Race, and Violence from Vietnam to Oklahoma City by Kathleen Belew of Northwestern University’s History Department.

The digital migration

Meanwhile, hate literature continues to be produced, Beirich says, noting that SPLC still receives about 50–60 hard-copy publications from extremist groups per month. However, much more is being published now on the internet. Online, there’s no way to know how much is out there or how well it’s being read, if only because it’s distributed in too many formats, she says. “It’s very widespread.” SPLC tracks some of it but doesn’t have the resources to do much yet in the way of internet tracking. The Intelligence Project has a blog of its own and the Intelligence Report magazine, and also tracks the work of other social justice organizations such as the Center for New Community in Chicago and the New York City–based Anti-Defamation League.

The Internet is a bigger and more cost-effective soapbox that reaches more people than even widely distributed paper pamphlets, Shoemaker says. Moreover, “On the internet, you can always find someone who will agree with you.” 

This online migration raises the issue of how to keep extreme-literature collections current in the future. “That’s a very good question,” Shoemaker says.

Digitized radical and fringe literature is definitely harder to monitor as it could be anywhere on the Internet—and as it’s easier to produce, there could be much more of it. That means gathering it comes down to resources and whether the library’s special collections budget is better spent on such digital material. Shoemaker says that having the know-how to collect and make available born-digital material is a cutting-edge issue for which many repositories lack the resources.

Even so, there are things both Berg and Shoemaker would like to add to their respective extremist-literature collections. Berg’s wish list: “We have only half the issues of The Masses [a socialist political magazine published from 1911 to 1918], and I keep apologizing to people for that. I’d like to fill those in,” he says. In addition, he’d like to get more information on “the second wave of the feminist movement in the US, during the 1960s and 1970s.”

Shoemaker, too, is interested in filling some gaps in publication runs at Brandeis, but after that, she’d like to acquire more recent works. “There’s been a lot of political commentary on the left and the right on a variety of subjects since the 1980s, so that would certainly be of interest.” But again, some of this material has gone—or soon will go—online, and paper publication may cease. At that point, these libraries will have to decide just how much digital material they can afford in order to keep their collections up to date.

MARIA R. TRASKA is a Chicago-based freelance journalist, author, and blogger.