Even before the Women’s March last Saturday was history, the archivists at the Newberry Library suspected it would be historic. They put out a call for Chicagoans to send in photos and bring their signs, their buttons, their pussyhats, and whatever other materials they carried with them to the library to be preserved forever in its archive.
“We wanted to make sure we were preserving the raw material from what is certainly going to be an evolving landscape of social action,” Martha Briggs, the curator in charge of the project, said in a statement. “We also wanted to encourage everyone to think of their protest signs as worth saving for future generations interested in looking back on how citizens of our time framed pressing political issues and organized themselves for the causes they cared about.”
The library has a century’s worth of protest materials in its archive, going back to the leaflets written by the radicals who hung out at the Dil Pickle Club in the 1910s to signs carried by #BlackLivesMatter marchers. Materials from the Women’s March seemed a natural extension of the collection.
“In library world, these things are known as ephemera,” says Alex Teller, a library spokesman. “They’re time-sensitive and purposeful. If we don’t act fast, they disappear.”
The library began putting out calls for materials on social media on Friday; the response was immediate and overwhelming. “It’s cool to walk down the street to get a coffee and see people bringing stuff in,” Teller says. The materials he’s seen coming into the library have been representative of what he saw at the march on Saturday: references to Star Wars (the portrait of Princess Leia with the slogan “A woman’s place is in the resistance”) and plenty of pussyhats. People who submit photos will have the opportunity to add their own captions to tell their stories.
Once the materials are sorted, they’ll be archived in the library’s collection. Users can view them online or make an appointment to look at them in person in the library’s reading room.
For Teller, it’s been interesting to see how protest materials have evolved over time and how the signs and posters from the Women’s March in particular reflect current political thinking. “One of the things we do is document the landscape of activism as it evolves and changes,” he says. “People are starting to frame issues in a more inclusive way. On Saturday the political messages were filtered through an intersectional prism. It wasn’t just racial justice and gender equality and environmental issues, but linking all these things together. It’s great to have those pieces as part of the archive.”