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“Archival Power” and the Future of Environmental Movement History
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“Archival Power” and the Future of Environmental Movement History

In the spring of 1998, I began work on a history of air pollution control policy, focusing on new mechanisms of local control that more actively included representatives of the public. In Pittsburgh, these new possibilities for local activism had contributed to the rise of the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) in 1969. When I went looking for archival documents that could explain the history, demographics, rhetoric, and strategy of this environmental advocacy group three decades later, I found only strangely scattered pieces. By the late 1990s the leadership of GASP did not know if any material had ever been donated to any local archive; they were several generations removed from the original activists, many of whom had passed on, left the cause, or moved to Florida. Over the next twelve years, I attempted to chase down the records of individuals and the group. I swooped in to claim and sort discarded garbage bags full of paper when the group moved offices, and pursued material that some activists had donated to a library (which did not have any provisions for archival storage) without the knowledge of the rest of the group’s [End Page 537] leaders (who did not know where the records had gone). The only point in time that all of the records I used to write my dissertation came together in one place, with professional archivists assessing, sorting, and organizing the material, was after I had finished the resulting book—thirteen years after the spring of 1998.1

I take this experience as one piece of evidence that the archival records of environmental activism in the 1960s are only now becoming ripe for historians. After all, with the transformation in the archival status of GASP records over the last decade, I can safely say that the book I have just finished would be a very different one if I were to write it today. Simply acquiring and organizing the materials consumed most of my time in the dissertation research. Today, with the same materials now located in professionally managed archives, I could spend more time concentrating on the context in which this organization developed its political responses to changing legal and legislative opportunities. I would also have a significantly different perspective on these materials were I to encounter them as a chronologically or thematically organized set of records inside an archive. While these anecdotal observations feel logical, when I began discussing the point with other scholars I became unsatisfied with my own limited viewpoint. This article results from an attempt to test out these assumptions through journalistic interviews with archivists throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. In so doing, I hope to consider the ways that “archival power” has shaped, and will continue to direct, the future of environmental history in the Mid-Atlantic.2

Archival Power

At this moment in the early twenty-first century, the archival records of the modern environmental movement are ripening for use, creating a unique opportunity for new work on the history of environmental politics and policy in the Mid-Atlantic region. These records can be divided into at least three categories, including the documentary evidence of government decisionmaking, the materials produced by environmental organizing in the public sphere, and the records of corporate actions and deliberations. While internal corporate records of the late twentieth century remain comparatively rare, archival records in the other two areas are evolving into a new era of availability. Just as new sources, emphases, and concerns have worked to transform the political history of the civil rights era and of the social revolutions of the long 1960s, these same [End Page 538] forces could prompt significant change in the narrative of twentieth-century environmental history. Indeed, the future story of environmental politics and policy in the Mid-Atlantic region depends almost entirely upon the materials that are in the archives now or will be added in the years to come.3

Understanding the ebb and flow of archival preservation allows us to understand both the histories that have already been written and those that might be possible only now. Along these lines, historian and...