How can the turn to the digital transform the archive into an active platform for creating, preserving, and transmitting knowledge? This is the question at the center of my research – and why the George Meany Memorial Archives records on Civil Rights in the US fascinate me. They help me see how archives can help model complex social networks. Achieving large social changes, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, requires the work of multitudes. The Meany archive reflects the scope of their work through the tens of thousands of messages, reports, articles, and pamphlets that the AFL-CIO leadership chose to preserve.

With records from before the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merger in 1955 through the 1980s, the archive covers the life (and afterlife) of Jim Crow after the Second World War. Offering evidence that’s both internal and external to the AFL-CIO, this fine-grained documentation ranges from Civil Rights Division meeting minutes to the Senate newsletters documenting daily floor action on the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The records offer us evidence of organizational, economic and personal ties, track how those ties change over time, and reveal how coalitions emerge and vanish. More importantly, the archives enable us to see how those coalitions made sense of their worlds as they changed them through protests, strikes, legislation, court cases, and administrative decisions.

The archival record of Civil Rights documents both ringing successes and heartbreaking failures. We see hard-fought successes in court victories like Brown v. Board and legislative wins like the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1964 as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Conversely, perhaps the most chief failure they show is the tenacious survival of Jim Crow, reflected in both ongoing violence and division. On one hand, archival records document events like the assassination of Martin Luther King, unsolved murders of local union leaders, and attacks of White Citizens’ Councils and Klansmen. On the other, they reveal divisions between the AFL-CIO and the NAACP, between union leaders and white members opposed to school desegregation, between the union and Black Members of Congress (e.g. Adam Clayton Powell and Charles Rangel), and between Bayard Rustin and the Black Power Movement active in labor through organizations like the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM).

Assessing these records to find the traces of these coalitions and conflicts can be challenging, particularly since they weren’t selected and organized to be used in that way. Yet, digitization greatly helps us with this scanning process. Optical Character Recognition (OCR), for instance, equip us to extract texts, while machine learning (ML) techniques like Named Entity Recognition (NER) help us identify names and places by applying models of what names look like to the entire set of records. Other ML techniques allow us to generate summaries of text in records and extract relationships between entities in those records.

Certainly, our ability to make sense of the past through these records is not without constraints – remembering requires choices to be made – from which records the AFL-CIO chose to preserve to which records we chose to digitize and represent in our databases. Some variation of these limitations is necessary, yet our awareness helps remind us that all we see is not all there is.

Still, all of these techniques transform the structure of source records like routing memos, meeting minutes and newsletters into database structures that make the context and relationships between the records visible. Scanning the records is much easier when we reduce the cognitive burden by first scanning the database using visualizations, ranked lists, and recommendations. These tools help archivists and researchers to both focus their attention and draw others to what they find.

Ultimately, this work enables communities of scholars, activists and others to closely follow the AFL-CIO’s participation in broader political conversations of postwar US on issues like anti-communism, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the resurgence of the Republican Party under Nixon. It also reveals organized labor’s role in developing the modern transportation and information networks we depend on, and how building those networks affected where we live, work, and educate our children. Contextualizing these records affords people to ways to make sense of them, highlighting how echoes of past conversations are evident in political conversations today.

– Will R. Thomas, Graduate Assistant for AADHum and Ph.D. student in Information Studies (iSchool)