Graham Stinnett is Curator of the Human Rights and Alternative Press Collections in the Archives & Special Collections at the University of Connecticut’s Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. He has worked on a variety of projects relating to human rights topics. He is also a former member of the Steering Committee of the LGBTQ Issues Roundtable.
Q1. Your biography suggests that you began working on human rights topics before coming to the University of Connecticut. How did you become interested in this work, and how have you continued working with these topics at the Dodd Center?
G. S. My primary interest in this field came through punk rock bands talking about US Cold War policy in Latin America which led to my own research into the resulting records opened through FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests by the National Security Archives. I got my start doing human rights archives at the University of Colorado at Boulder working with Head Archivist Bruce Montgomery, a pioneer in human rights collection development. My principles and historical understanding shaped my thinking towards praxis through archives with the help of mentors like Bruce and my advisors at the University of Manitoba in Canada, Tom Nesmith and Terry Cook, as well as scholars like Verne Harris and Trudy Huskamp Peterson. Human Rights NGOs in Central America during the 1980s dictatorship period were the primary records creators of disappearances and testimonies which challenged the state-military apparatus. Collecting archives from the individuals in society outside of the traditional power structures of the state or its collecting mandate vastly broadens the range of human rights preservation, predominantly through these groups working towards record keeping as a justice crucible. My work in the archives at the University of Connecticut has continued because of the amazing collections already established here from the Nuremberg papers of Thomas J. Dodd to the Mattachine Society work of Foster Gunnison Jr. and the Alternative Press Collection (AltPress) as a whole. I believe in the principles of archives as tools for engagement with a broader societal understanding of itself and how it can be leveraged for change in society, so building on these collecting areas is very beneficial. We are always being documented, it is our job to engage the creation of memory from that documentation.
Q2. From an archivist’s perspective, what is the importance of collecting and preserving materials such as the ones contained in the Human Rights and Alternative Press Collections? What is the value of sharing these stories?
Lately I have started to view the importance of what I do as part of an intergenerational conversation. The historical reference is the purpose, however the use is the value. The majority of the AltPress is print based and very ephemeral, but also highly reflective of the author’s hand. When teaching with these materials, students often have derisive responses to the form itself because of these ephemeral qualities as opposed to word processing formats as well as the radical views expressed. When considering the basis of text communication in social media platforms today which could be the closest comparison to the channels of alternative press, these outlets have more in common than they do in division. My goal is to promote the dialectic between then and now. Beyond the narrative that all movements toward rights are valuable and worth documenting, my interest has been to promote the intersections where students have made impacts through documentation in the past which now can inform the present context of identity, recreation, sociability and agency. Having said all that, I don’t think we as archivists have yet understood how to deal with today’s alternative press, which is why these conversations are so important.
Q3. A wide variety of groups, developments, and ideas are covered within materials you curate. How do you work to ensure a diversity of stories and perspectives within the collections?
Diversity often springs from the alternative. Decentralized collecting, in this case looking outside of the university community into such fringe/minority areas for Alternative Press and Human Rights, which typifies the nature of these collections, begins the process of incorporating outside voices into the archive. That also leads to a danger however of fetishizing those things we do collect, especially when they are as far afield as apartheid in South Africa and genocide in Darfur. For me, the primary concern of diversity is through its promotion as a lens into front end archival collections and back end functions. This includes utilizing the master’s tools to read against what is present in the picture. Keeping current however requires the archivist to be activist in finding people in their struggles and working in solidarity to promote voices. Specifically, for me, it ranges from student organizations and their archives to artists creating work around policing and organizations pooling their resources to make everyday resistance to war and oppression.
Q4. What are your goals in terms of engaging people with the collections and the issues connected to these materials? How do efforts such as your blog contribute to these goals?
A large part of the outreach and engagement I focus on attempts to make linkages between our collections and the work being done currently around events, movements and expression. For example, a program we hosted in 2014 titled “War, Struggle and Visual Politics: Art on the Front Lines” where we brought in a photographer documenting Afghanistan over the last 20 years, an illustrator who published widely in the 1980s AltPress materials recently acquired as part of our Joe Snow Punk Rock Collection, as well as members of the Iraq Veterans Against the War organization. Complimenting this were several exhibitions of our collections, workshops on writing and design as well as the art these activists performed and brought with them. The programming and presentation of archives around current events and scholarship in all its forms is difficult to measure beyond analytics. My goals for engagement generally are to make society aware of the archives as ‘just around the block’. The vast public which is not thinking archivally have the most to lose regardless if our profession engages them or not. For those already using archives, I want to help uncover hidden histories. And for those in the profession, I want to trouble the idea of archives entirely. A large part of my everyday engagement more concretely is through social media platforms; following the lead of the young people in society to broadcast and shape mediums for agitation is always inspiring to document.
Q5. Could you name one or two items/collections that are particularly interesting to you?
One of my favorite items is a pair of Abbie Hoffman’s American flag socks from his collection. I like to joke that the digital humanities still has to contend with the scratch and sniff qualities of ephemera when digital surrogates are du jour.
Also, I am fond of the Joe Snow Punk Rock Collection that has been incorporated into the AltPress. The varying sites of production for underground culture and art in the hardcore punk scenes of Connecticut in the early 1980s generated a trove of creative expression. It always serves as a reminder to me that people work very hard to create impermanent communities, and these efforts need to be preserved.