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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."
 

ISC 15. After the Organisation: A guide for Activists & Information workers

Martyn Lowe

Introduction

There are many manuals that are aimed at political organisers, which cover how to successfully organise a campaign, yet none of these ever go into how one might efficiently close down a campaigning body. Closing down an organisation might seem like a simple thing to do, yet in doing so one should always keep in mind a few simple practicalities, such as the fact that the organisation might still be receiving mail for many years after it has ceased to exist.

Likewise, one should also pay attention to preserving the achievements of the organisation, & making sure that the work of the organisation can be developed in the long term. This article is based upon the experience of both founding and closing down a number of campaigning bodies. It is aimed at both campaigners and information workers, because both should work together in closing down organisations efficiently, and in so doing further the work of the campaign.

Having spent many a happy hour dealing with the various queries that have resulted from work engendered by my previous efforts within long ago campaigning organisations, this article might also be viewed as a cry from the heart. This is NOT intended to be a definitive work upon the subject, but to raise issues, and indicate the kind of options that we might all try.

After the Campaign

All campaigning bodies have a natural life span :

  1. You become concerned about an issue or various related issues.
  2. You get together with like minded people and talk over the issue(s).
  3. You found an organisation to work upon the issue(s).
  4. You follow the issue(s) through.
  5. You succeed in your aims, & the issue(s) becomes main stream concerns.
  6. You fold up the organisation.

Sounds simple? It is not. The very act of folding up an organisation should be as well planned as the campaign itself.

Finance and Follow up work, or Dealing with the mail.

Some two decades after it folded MERAG ( The Middle East Research and Action Group ), still receives correspondence. The same is true for any organisation. People will still use a directory anything up to a decade after it has become out of date. So the mail for the organisation will still come pouring in. There are several practical things that one can do about this.

Perhaps one of the most practical things to do, is to make sure upon closing down the campaigns bank account, that some money is put aside to finance any follow up enquires that might come through. A budget should be worked out for this, based upon the volume of correspondence that the campaign has received. Part of this budget should be to cover postage, while the rest might be used for information packs, which might go out with standard form letters.

It might also be noted that under UK financial rules, that fiscal records should be kept for a period of 7 years. It might sound like an unjustified expenditure, but if an organisation has had a lot of money passing through it, then it might be a good idea to have the final accounts properly audited, or at least looked at by an accountant.

It is important to do a press mailing stating that the organisation has folded .Such mailings should also be sent out to those directories in which the organisation has appeared. Just because an organisation has not been mentioned in a print version of a directory, does not mean that it has been removed from the directory database, which might still be sold on to others.

As anyone who has ever put together a directory will tell you, people can be very sloppy in how they return directory update forms, and in many organisations they just don't seem to regard such forms as important. Thus the various inaccuracies which are to be found with a high percentage of such works.

Webpage information

One way of dealing with any future enquires about the organisation is by maintaining ones website. For example: Organisationen til Oplysning om Atomkraft (The Organisation for Information on Nuclear Power) which folded in 2000, still gives information about its closure, and its previous website information. It is be found at: http://www.ooa.dk/

One advantage of maintaining such a website is that it means that one can easily refer people on to informationabout the campaign/organisation, and give links to follow up work and related campaigning bodies. There should also be agreed upon an email contact for any further queries that might be received.

Archives

One of the characteristics of many organisations is that its archives may well be held by a group of between 6-12 people who were involved in the campaign. Some organisations hold a central archive, but this truth still holds true. From my experience within a number of organisations, such as for example: Operation Namibia and Greenpeace ( London), working upon putting together an archive after the organisation has folded can be a very time consuming effort.

People within many campaigning bodies only really start to consider their archives years after they have folded. Much effort could of been saved by dealing with these issues at the time. The Committee of 100, which folded in 1968, is also currently engaged upon a consultation within its former members about setting up a committee archive.

Many activist are maybe just too good at activism to ever get around to clearing up the filing system, or passing on their archives. A lot of radical activity can get lost as a result. There are many archives that are most willing to take the archives of radical organisations. For example: The International Institute of Social History ( IISH ) in Amsterdam. You can view the IISH website at: http://www.iisg.nl/

I have already handed over the following archives that I held for the following bodies to IISH: Librarians Within the Peace Movement (LWPM), Liwo Support Group and Information for Social Change (ISC) up to 1999.

There are also another number of Archival institutions that I could suggest, but you get the idea. The important point being that those 6-12 people who were centrally involved within any campaign should all make sure that the archives of the organisation go to one place.

Safeguarding Our History, or telling OUR story

One should also look to the issue of how we might maintain an activist history. The activist view can never be the same as how academics view what one has achieved. Telling it in our own words is perhaps more important than having to rely upon the changing views of the historian.

During the 'second wave' of anti-nukiller-weapons protests in the early 1980s, upon one demonstration there was a banner which held the right for historians to have future work. As any librarian or information worker will know, there are just too many secondary sources to refer to, yet the most valuable sources of such accounts come from our own history, as people that were/ are politically engaged.

Selling ones history

One other aspect of the work of any defunct organisation that should be considered, is its Intellectual Property Rights. Many of the texts that organisations generate are co-operative works. Does the copyright on these texts hold with the organisation, or with the individuals who wrote them ?

Assigning copyright after some 20-30 years on can become something of a problem, should you ever have to go into such things. Who drafted what and with whom is not the kind of question that one really wants to pursue a couple of decades later. Even if you can remember who did what, contacting the individual with a copyright question might be near impossible to do.

To go back to the example of Greenpeace ( London ),many of the former activists of this group are scattered throughout the globe, in such places as the USA, Germany, Australia, France, Ireland, and New Zealand. So for all practical purposes any decision about issues concerning aspects of any defunct organisation, such as intellectual property rights, will almost inevitably come down to a small group of people that have managed to stay in contact over the years. Hardly the most democratic way to deal with these issues, even if it is the most pragmatic one.

One solution to this problem is to hand over the intellectual property rights to the body that holds the archive of the organisation. Call this funding the care and preservation of the archive if you will. This can save a lot of problems and unnecessary effort in the long term.

Another approach is to set up things so that any finances generated by the subsequence publication of these texts are used by a body/bodies that further the work of the defunct campaigning body. This can be very financially efficient if this is handed over to a trust or educational charity. It is also very tax efficient too. This could also be a painless way in which to further the work of the campaign.

On a personal note

I have been involved with, or have had contact with some 2,500 - 3,000 organisation in an activist life of nearly 35 years. That also sound like a lot to me, but it is based upon the number of campaigning bodies that I am/have been involved within.

This brings me on to two thoughts. One. That activists should include something about what to do with their archives within their will. I have already done this. Two. That activists should actively engage with oral history projects..

For example: The Imperial War Museum, in London, has an oral history archive of 20th century pacifists. This is not something that I have ever done so far, but it is something that I would like to do.

My CV is far from 'bog standard', and having worked with some of the key figures within various radical circles, I think someone might find some of my observations and anecdotes maybe of interest. Anyone interested in doing this with me ?

An example that proves the point

Right now I am amassing information about the wave of pedestrian activism that took place in the 1970s and early 1980s. For example: the ELF (Edinburgh Liberation Front), was active around the time circa 1970-1973. They used to give tourist walks around the slums of the city, and were one of the first groups to campaign for the streets of Edinburgh to be pedestrianised.

I am not sure what ever happened to their archives, but am trying to find this out. My first contact with the ELF came while I was involved with YAPPU (the Youth association of the Peace Pledge Union ) some 30 years ago. My own memories go back to visiting some of them in Edinburgh sometime during 1972. We all went to the pub together, followed by playing frisbee in the park.

Previous to this a policeman had turned up at their flat with, yet another, summons which resulted from their work to pedestrianise one of the streets within the city. At the time 4 of the group had some 17 different criminal charges against them for this work. This included being apprehended at 1.30am while painting double yellow (no parking) lines along the street. ELF also produced a periodical entitled Roots. I have copies # 5-8 of this work. Yet what became of their archives ?

In conclusion

I am not sure that I have all of the answers about what might be done in closing down an organisation effectively, but I hope that I might have given some pointers about what might be done, and what has been done in the past. As to the problem that I have with an academic view of radical history, I'll return to that at some later stage. Yet I should make a few points about this issue right now.

Many activists regard academics as parasites who live upon an intellectual dissection of their radical activism,while contributing zilch towards the radical work that they are making 'a nice living' upon. This is not to say that I am against an academic approach to radical work, just that the words and views of the activists should receive greater attention. Any money that results from such publicity should go towards furthering the work, rather than the coffers of any academic institution which might never have worked upon the issue in the first place.

So who can use our archives, and under what conditions, is an issue that we should all think about. I write this as a commited activist. If an academic or academic body is going to make a profit out of my work, then they should pay me towards the furtherance of such radical work.

A couple of afterthoughts

A couple of days after I drafted the above, thinking about what I wrote, a couple of other ideas came to my mind. I should also explain that I sometimes will write an article in one go, & then come back to it a few days later. That way I can see it afresh, and add lines or modify the text to make points much clearer. The first draft of this article was just under 2,000 words, which I wrote in one go. So here are my thoughts over the last few days.

Having concluded the above I looked through a number of campaigning manuals, and came upon just one book which has just two pages about what do after a campaigning body has been closed down. It did not refer to many of the points that I mention above. It strikes me that maybe there is a need for a pamphlet which goes more fully into this issue. Please don't ask me to write such a work, although I would be willing to give my thoughts and ideas to anyone that might be interested in writing such a work.

Part of my political thinking is that I should raise new issues and concerns. The true work of a radical is to take the over view, and be able to highlight those concerns and issues which are getting no attention. My shining example of this is Dorothea Woods, who died last year. She pioneered the work that is currently being carried out on child soldiers.

So this article is really just intended to raise some interest into this subject. If you have any references or ideas that might add to the above, then feel please to contact ISC with a letter on the subject that might be added to the next issue of the journal.

My other observation is about the kind of job forms that exist. Wouldn't it be nice if such forms also included a section for references for those websites upon which ones work might be seen. However, such a work as : 'a new approach to CVs' , and 'redesigning application forms' will have to wait for now. I look forward to reading your reaction to the above.

 

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