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Why Start an Informal Archive??

My friend Varoon recently shared a link to Stanford SLAP’s Disorientation Guide, pointing out what a great resource it is.

It is!

A “Disorientation Guide” often just called a “Diso” or DisGuide” is a zine put together by college students (or other members of the local activist community), introducing incoming students to social justice issues on campus, and presenting a counter-narrative to what you might find in glossy admissions brochures. These publications are so vital because they’re written and designed by the students on the ground, and often self-published anonymously or under a group affiliation to prevent retaliation or repression.

The guide brought back a flood of memories for me, of the publications I had looked at for inspiration and precedent when I was working on activist zines as a student. That was five or seven years ago, but just looking at any table of contents, it’s clear how the issues and resources recur across the years and across campuses:

I opened some tabs, searching for other Disorientation publications…

A few good sites came up!

  • Guides for the Perplexed” an article in The New Inquiry with a list of about 20 publications from 2014
  • a lovely, in its own way, text-only site called disorientation.net which linked to a similar set of about 15 publications
  • a site called dis-orientation.info which appears to have been started in 2013 and then gone dormant in 2014, with just a few publications listed
  • a site called campusactivism.org, which allows users to upload content, and had accrued about 25 publications from 1996-2010

But what about the last 6 years? Where is everything before the 90s?? Is this handful of publications really it?

The just-released publication from Stanford was hosted on Issuu, a document hosting website founded in 2006 that’s kind of like YouTube for PDFs.

Below the publication were some algorithmically-generated recommendations — here was a hint of more recent publications!

Searching Issuu for “Disorientation” turned up loads of results — mostly unrelated junk — but with about 50 actual Disos in the mix, published between 2004-2020.

The issue with Issuu

Issuu hosts files for free, in exchange for plastering ads everywhere. To demonstrate just how little surface area they give to actual content, I color-coded a screenshot of a publication page on Issuu.

  • GRAY = Interface junk
  • RED = Ads, ads, ads
  • ORANGE = Debatably useful algorithmic suggestions
  • GREEN = The publication and its descriptive content
Left: Screenshot of Issuu
Right: Color-coded to show content, recommendations, ads, and interface junk.

For student activist publishing, ad-supported publication platforms represent a double-bind.

On one hand: these platforms are essential.

Student activists are in struggle. Not just against the university and for a better world, but oftentimes to meet their own basic needs. The student activist groups I’ve known definitely don’t have money lying around to throw at web hosting, nor the time and energy it takes to figure out web publishing or archiving. There are much, MUCH bigger fish to fry. Ad-supported platforms make it easy to push a publication out onto the internet, and have it stay there for a long time to come.

I suspect that many student activist publications which were once posted online to homegrown websites or shared to now shuttered platforms are now gone. The internet is brittle! Website hosting and domains expire annually if somebody forgets to renew, stops being able to pay, or just moves on from the cause. Only the ad-supported seem to survive.

In these respects, we have platforms to thank.

On the other hand: ad-supported platforms are exploitative capitalist garbage! The paradox is almost laughable. I don’t need to rail on it any further here.

Issuu is also a “walled garden” — even though the Disos are uploaded by publishers as PDFs, Issuu doesn’t allow readers to download those PDFs (unless users check an obscure box opting-in to this, which almost none do). This means that publications can only circulate alongside Issuu’s wall of ads, and they can’t be saved locally or printed. And: the whole point of zines is to be able to print and freely circulate them???????

Value-suck aside, the biggest issue I have with Issuu is that sharing activist materials on ad-supported platforms leaves so much connective possibility on the table!

The possibilities of a narrow archive

In bringing together all these publications (and only these publications) across platforms, I’m imagining a narrow archive.

What does a narrow archive do?

A narrow archive opens up new ways of organizing: by Institution, by Year, plotted on a map by Location. In the longer term, with some taxonomical elbow grease, a narrow archive could support the emergence of a contextually-specific kind of organization, linking together student struggles across institutions. It’s not just that the issues these publications illuminate are structural and interconnected, but that higher education administration is a small, small world: and every few years college presidents, upper-admins, and trustees jump from ruining one institution to the next.

A narrow archive makes search meaningful. On Issuu, searching for “Disorientation” turned up publications on prayer, many architecture theses, the dangers of dry ice, a manual for flying airplanes, and a book on rave culture. It also didn’t include the full patchwork of publications from the five sites I came across. Being able to index and search just Diso publications all together will allow browsing more deeply (searching granularly within the full text of publications) and more broadly (searching and linking across institutions and decades).

A narrow archive opens the possibility for new kinds of care. In establishing a new center of gravity for this type of publication, I’d like to draw the original publishers, the surrounding communities, and those who care about these issues into orbit. For example, a new role of “maintainer” could emerge, for somebody within an institution or just a region that cares for a set of publications, and keeps an eye out for new ones. In terms of building an archive, there are so many jobs to be done: of course web design and development, but also the research, data entry, transcription, and outreach. And there are also curatorial roles: threading connections between institutions and putting issues in context.

A narrow archive goes beyond consumption towards generation. Materials added to the collection are enriched, little by little, with additional information, connections, and context. Histories which have become disaggregated are brought back into adjacency. Rather than re-inventing the wheel, resources are re-surfaced and re-used across time and across institutions, in the spirit of cross-institutional solidarity.

Those are just some of my dreams for this website.

Informal archive?

You might’ve noticed I’m calling this an informal archive.

This is my code-word for doing this as a side project: outside of work, without allotted resources, without any formal training or guidance in library science, without the archivist’s overhead of carefully managing rights*, and with the remit to experiment drastically.

Informal, for me, also invokes that anybody can do this!

I will document what I learn here, hoping to make a small contribution to the existing resources on “getting started with open source archiving”.

Onward…

I have a few drafts taking shape for this blog. Mostly semi-technical posts making sense of obstacles I’ve found myself up against as I bring this site into existence:

  • What kind of software should I use to host an archive?
  • How do I scrape 100 PDFs off of 5 sites (some of which try pretty hard to prevent downloads)?
  • How do I clean up all the data?
  • How do I make it look nice?
  • How do I make it searchable?
  • How do I implement mapping?

More soon…

If this project sounds interesting to you, I am actively seeking collaboration! If you have knowledge, skills, or time you’d like to contribute, please get in touch! Email is gro.snoitatneirosid@disorientations.org and tweets work too: @diso_archive.


* I am working off the assumption that zines are copyleft and intended to circulate as widely as possible. If a group wants their publication taken down, or pointed somewhere else — contact info is clearly posted, and that can absolutely be their call.