Digital Summer School: CUNY Digital History Archive

Formally launched in 2014, the CUNY Digital History Archive (CDHA) is as much a “digital history project” as it is archive, notes Roxanne Shirazi, CDHA project director and assistant professor at CUNY Graduate Center. From the outset, CHDA adopted an “activist approach to documenting CUNY history form the ground up,” digitizing the papers of students, activists, retirees, and others from the institution’s history. Shirazi discusses the project’s history, present, and future below.

The CUNY Digital History Archive (CDHA) grew out of a 2011 Graduate Center conference at which attendees realized that there was no real institutional archive for the CUNY system. Later, through a series of meetings held by the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, a larger team attempted to map out a way forward on this issue. How has this historical/epistemological trajectory shaped the project?

Being situated in a center dedicated to social history was crucial to the path of the project, as was the influence of professor Stephen Brier (now retired) as a founding director of both, along with Andrea Vasquez and Chloe Smolarski, who guided the project in its early years. Some of the functionality and design decisions were influenced by earlier ASHP/CML projects like Social History for Every Classroom (formerly known as HERB), for example the practice of including a head note to introduce each item and an emphasis on giving agency to people when describing primary source materials. CUNY still does not have an accessible institutional archives for the system as a whole—individual campuses each have their own archives—and while the CUNY Digital History Archive has filled some of that gap, we are not working to collect and preserve organizational records in the way a traditional archives would. We are much more interested in telling the histories of CUNY that so many of us have lived through; at its heart, the project is really a social history of the university.

Another important influence along these lines was the Occupy Wall Street movement, which at the time was creating new formations of radical educators across CUNY campuses and throughout the city (there was even a free university at Madison Square Park, just a few blocks from the CUNY Graduate Center, where the project is based). Many of our graduate students, faculty, and staff were active in Occupy, and the project was born at a moment when folks were excited to help create a grassroots, participatory archive that not only collected CUNY history but that also educated current students about the struggles of the past.

From the beginning the project took an active approach to documenting CUNY history from the ground up. We collect oral history interviews and seek out people who were active in the university’s history—students, activists, retirees. Many have their own personal collections of flyers, pamphlets, memos, newspapers, and other ephemera that document local struggles, perhaps decades-old, that now take on renewed political and social import. And these are just sitting in their apartments! We also work closely with CUNY campus archives, some of which lack the infrastructure for digital collections, to digitize items that our researchers identify as being important to a historical narrative. We provide digital access to these materials, curated by members of the community, and work with historians to contextualize them with interpretive essays. We’ve collaborated with librarians and archivists to develop our metadata schema and digitization workflows. The goal is to assemble digital collections that reveal the vibrant community of educators and activists that helped shape the “people’s university” in New York City. So it is a history from below, focused on the everyday individuals who have fought to sustain the institution.

How long has CDHA been providing researchers, teachers, and others digital access to its collections? What do you hope to add to it in the future?

The project was formally launched in 2014 and the site went up in 2015. The collections grow organically through the contributions of community members who have either saved materials or uncovered them through their own archival research. Despite its early successes, sporadic funding and inconsistent staffing led to concerns of project sustainability, and in 2021 the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center agreed to co-administer the project with the ASHP/CML. The library’s participation brought on a new project director (me!) and new short-term funds, while expanding the project’s access to specialized staff and digital preservation workflows.

We have a collection in the works now from a doctoral student who is researching the professionalization of CUNY security staff and public safety officers, connecting this to the student uprisings of the 1960s and 1970s. We’re also in conversation with a researcher who is conducting oral histories related to the SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge) program at Baruch College, and we’ve just begun curating a new collection on the activist history of CUNY’s librarians. There are so many corners of CUNY history to explore and untold stories to tell.

One thing to note is that we do not maintain any physical collections, we are entirely digital. We digitize materials and then return them to the contributors, following a postcustodial model that works especially well for community archives.

While any historian can recognize the value in a digital, institutional archive like CDHA, how do you engage other audiences—teachers, journalists, the general public? Have you been able to determine how the collections are being used?

Right now we’re working with students in the PhD Program in Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center to create educator resources and curricular materials—online teaching modules, lesson plans, assignments, and a syllabus bank—for a new section on the site called “Teaching with the CUNY Digital History Archive.” There is an immense amount of interest in mobilizing the histories we’ve collected by bringing them into the classroom to engage current CUNY students. We’re focused on undergraduates right now but have talked about bringing it into the high school level as well.

As far as use, we’ve now been around long enough to see citation evidence, and there are quite a few published journal articles and book chapters that reference the archive. Because there is no formal institutional archives for the CUNY system, we often receive inquiries from the general public who are researching their own family history and from biographers who want to situate their subjects in the right context.

In terms of engaging the public, we have a small social media presence and are developing a newsletter to strengthen our ties with supporters, and we’ve collaborated with the Gotham Center for New York City History and the Center for the Humanities, both public-facing research centers at the Graduate Center (in addition to the American Social History Project). The CUNY Digital History Archive is very much a public history project, not solely for academic audiences, and since it is a participatory project we engage these other audiences by inviting their contributions and collecting and sharing their stories. The history of CUNY is the history of marginalized communities in New York City fighting for equitable access to quality higher education. It’s not your typical town and gown dynamic! Nowadays it is common to hear CUNY lauded as an “engine of social and economic mobility,” but people don’t realize how hard we have had to fight to get the resources we need from Albany and City Hall to protect the quality of our students’ education amidst really brutal budget cuts. With 275,000 students commuting to campuses located across the five boroughs (many from multi-generational, immigrant households), over 30,000 instructional staff, and many more clerical and skilled trade workers, the CUNY community is the NYC public. The Professional Staff Congress, our faculty and staff union, recently took up the slogan, “Everybody loves somebody at CUNY,” which kind of says it all.  

Flyer with the following text:
Bedford Stuyvesant Youth in Action
Speak Out Now!
Have your say in planning for your Community College
Don't miss this mass community meeting!
Saturday, February 10, 1968 at: P.S. 35 Stephen Decatur Junior High School Location: 2727 McDonough St. Near: Lewis Ave. Time: 1:00-4:00p.m.
This is your special invitation to be present!!!
This is your community College!
We want some answers!
[collage of faces of men and women representative of various ethnicities and races]
1. Will our college be in Bedford-Stuyvesant?
2. Will we have a voice in planning courses to be taught in our college?
3. Will we be informed about the money being spent for our college "before" it is spent?
Emergency mass meeting sponsored by: Bedford-Stuyvesant Youth in Action Community Corporation
Co-Sponsors: The Five Community Action Neighborhood Boards; The Central Brooklyn Coordinating Council & The Ad Hoc Committee for Higher Education in Central Brookly
“February 1968 Youth in Action Flyer, “Have Your Say in Planning for Your Community College”” (1968), CUNY Digital History Archive.

The CDHA tracks the system’s growth from 1847 to the present. What trends in regards to the politics of the university have you found over this robust history? Are there periods in which the archive documents this history better than others? What challenges does the project face in this regard?

CUNY, as we know it today, only goes back to 1961, when the city’s municipal colleges were brought together as one university, but they all come out of the development of the Free Academy in New York in 1847, whose mission was to “educate the children of the whole people.” This commitment to tuition-free, taxpayer-supported, public higher education for the masses is central to the CUNY legacy. It’s probably not a surprise that there have been challenges to this mission throughout its history, especially as communities that had been historically excluded fought for greater access and demanded that the city and the institution deliver on that promise. In 1969 student activists won a shift in policy that began a period of open admissions that transformed the university. This was a time filled with experimental pedagogies and really groundbreaking developments in all sorts of areas, especially with the educational opportunity programs and remediation. But it was also an explosive time on college campuses, and these initial successes were met with reactionary politics at a time when NYC itself was faced with an unprecedented fiscal crisis in the 1970s. After 130 years, in 1976 CUNY ceased being tuition-free. It’s not lost on us that CUNY began charging tuition just as Black, Puerto Rican, and other students of color finally gained access to the institution. In the 1990s we saw even more intense dismantling of public higher education with each successive round of budget cuts, retrenchment of faculty, and increasing tuition.

So there are these three pivotal moments that I would consider our strengths in terms of the materials we’ve made available, and that’s having to do with the creation of CUNY, the open admissions period, and the cuts of the 1990s. We also have quite a few oral histories now, which provide insights into the experiences of individuals during these times. Our collecting strategy has always been around documenting specific histories, though, so if someone has materials that help construct a moment or aspect of CUNY history we are open to including it.

Notably, the project pays close attention to the casualization of academia. It has archived nearly 130 documents pertaining to contingent labor, many of which date back as far as the mid-1980s. What does this tell us about CUNY but also the industry in general?

This is a huge problem in academia, and at CUNY the struggle against contingency has played out through the history of the PSC/CUNY, our faculty and staff union, which since its founding in 1972 has had internal conflict between full-time faculty and part-time (adjunct) faculty. This also means that the problem of contingent labor is pretty well documented in those organizational records, which are currently held by the Tamiment Library and Wagner Labor Archives at NYU. Our former collections manager, Chloe Smolarski, who also adjuncts at CUNY, curated a collection called CUNY Adjunct Labor that documents three decades of organizing efforts by part-time faculty and graduate students. She worked with Irwin Yellowitz, a labor historian and longtime principal officer of the PSC to select meaningful documents from the PSC/CUNY Archives, digitize them, and add contextual notes to each—this is how we construct our histories. It’s an amazing resource, really. Most of our collections end up with between 30 and 40 items—this one has over 80, covering everything from the struggle for health insurance to salary parity and better representation in the union.  

What does this tell us about CUNY? Well, many of the folks most active in the social movements that influenced the direction of the university were also actively involved with the PSC/CUNY, and that continues to be the case today. We have a document from 1982 that states, “full-time faculty benefit from the existence of adjunct faculty under present conditions.” How many of us have heard that today, and this is from 1982! But while that’s true in a specific context, I think there is a growing recognition that the casualization of the professoriate is both a symptom of and mechanism for the dismantling of public higher education, and that today’s conditions indicate that the biggest beneficiary of adjunctification is the administration, not the full-time faculty. This is an important leap to make, to build solidarity between the ranks so that full-time faculty see the systemic harm as well as the individual harms being experienced by their part-time colleagues. Change has been frustratingly incremental, but we have seen some real successes for part-timers come out of recent union contracts, in terms of stability. We have so much more work to do, but I have to think that seeing the decades of conflict laid out in this collection is a good reminder that those in power would much rather see us fight each other than fight them.   

At this point, the idea of the digital humanities, as evidenced by a project like the CDHA, seems to be increasingly important to various academic fields, especially history. Where do you think the digital humanities are today, and where would you situate CDHA in its orbit?

Digital humanities has always been an expansive term, which I take broadly to mean doing the work of interpretation—as a method in humanities study—using digital technologies. Some do this using computational methods like computer-aided text analysis and machine learning, but I’m more interested in an approach that brings humanities interpretation into digital spaces, work that encompasses multimodal and interactive publishing.

Over the last few years I’ve definitely seen an increase in the social justice aspects of doing digital history as well as more focused attention on community archives. Despite having the word “archive” in the name, I see the CUNY Digital History Archive as a digital public history project, informed by the practices of postcustodial community archives. The project is not only about providing access to archival materials; we are helping our audience interpret them by providing historical context and background, while connecting the materials to the struggles of today’s students through our teaching guides and curricular resources. We also have a strong commitment to building our community of educator-activists and continuing to defend public higher education by making clear why the history of CUNY matters. This is what I find so exciting about the work—it’s bringing folks together through this shared activity of meaning-making through creating digital collections that connect the struggles of the past to today’s problems. To me, that’s a very digital humanities approach to public scholarship and one that I’m looking forward to continuing with the CUNY Digital History Archive.

Roxanne Shirazi is assistant professor and dissertation research librarian at the CUNY Graduate Center, where she also serves as project director for the CUNY Digital History Archive. Roxanne was a founding co-editor of dh+lib (“where the digital humanities and librarianship meet”) and has taught digital humanities at Pratt Institute’s School of Information. Her research focuses on digital scholarship, academic labor, and librarianship as a feminized profession and has appeared in Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly CommunicationLibrary Trends, and College & Research Libraries. She is currently working on a history of activist librarians at CUNY.

Featured image (at top): Community Coalition to Save Hostos, “We Accuse” (1976), Hostos Community College Archive/CUNY Digital History Archive. 

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