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Gale Gathers Primary Sources on Political Extremists
Posted On October 9, 2018
Robert F. Kennedy once said, “What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents.” Taking another view, in his autobiography, Malcolm X reminded readers to tell scoffers “that he and all of the other moderate Negroes who are getting somewhere need to always remember that it was us extremists who made it possible.”

Political extremists have existed throughout history, but without access to primary documents, being able to understand their reasoning, the work of their groups, and their movements was left to coverage in recorded histories or biographies—until recently. With the release of Political Extremism & Radicalism in the Twentieth Century: Far-Right and Left Political Groups in the U.S., Europe, and Australia, Gale has opened the files of major archives—both right- and left-wing ones—across the globe, allowing unprecedented access to primary evidence on these groups from their own perspectives.

Political Extremism Product

Political Extremism & Radicalism in the Twentieth Century is an impressive collection of materials that Gale promotes as “the first digital archive documenting a range of radical right and fascist movements, communist and socialist groups and new left activists in never-before-digitized primary sources.” It includes materials from the following:

  • The Radicalism Collection (Michigan State University)—“Collection of ephemera on radical political groups across a range of extremist movements, including those involved in religion, race, gender, the environment and equal rights”
  • The Hall-Hoag Collection of Dissenting and Extremist Printed Propaganda (Brown University)—“Includes printed propaganda from U.S. anti-integrationist, anti-Semitic and racist groups”
  • The Searchlight Archive (University of Northampton)—“Consists of documents, audio histories and back issues of Searchlight Magazine (1965-2017) from Searchlight Associates, an information service that aims to expose racist and fascist groups”
  • The National Archives (U.K.)—“Includes government documents relating to inter- and post-war British extremist movements, including Security Service files and Home Office papers”

Kayla Siefker, Gale’s senior media and public relations manager, says current pricing starts at $4,350 and is “based on an institution’s FTE and other institutional variables; public library pricing is determined by population served. Bundle discounts are granted for institutions making multicollection purchases.” She explains that the product is complete, “but there are plans for future installments in this series focusing on specific areas of political radicalism. These additional modules will enable greater in-depth research on particular areas.” On request, Gale will provide data and metadata for use in data mining and textual analysis.

Searching the Collections

Gale has done an impressive job of providing many helpful and interesting tools for use with the product. However, reference links and contextual background are not included. “Other than the seven academic essays under ‘Essays and Resources,’” Siefker says, “there are no further features planned for module one. However, we intend to include similar aids in future installments.” The essays are written by historians and others focusing on the value and nature of the collections, but they are not linked to the resources themselves and are at a deeper-level discussion than a novice user might need to develop a sense of the concepts and times.

Two of the coolest features are term clustering and cross-search capability. By grouping commonly occurring themes, it is much easier to uncover potential connections between searched terms. Even just the ability to see word frequency over time is of high value. You may restrict searches to the collection; however, the ability to cross-search the content of Gale’s other primary source collections is exceptional for enabling the discovery of new insights and connections.

In my searching, I did find some materials of poor resolution that made them unreadable. “Many of the primary sources are very rare,” Siefker notes, “and we have had to create scans from the only copies available, which were often not ideal; for instance, some of materials from the National Archives at Kew came from microfilm because the original primary sources had been destroyed.” The majority of the items I found were usable and easily copied or saved to my files.

Gale’s press release announcing the collection notes that it “contains more than 600,000 pages of content and more than 42 audio histories with full transcripts, making it the largest and most comprehensive resource of its kind.” Content includes “campaign materials, propaganda, government records and various ephemera that allow researchers to explore extremism and radicalism in new and innovative ways.” Certainly one of the key issues in collecting materials on any of these groups is the generally disorganized or highly dispersed nature of their leadership and ideas—especially before the internet.

Finding Resources

In 1970, St Paul, Minn., police officer James T. Sackett Sr. was ambushed and killed by “suspects associated with the Black Panthers.” The plot was devised by a high school classmate of mine, Ronald Reed, who “carried [it] out to impress the national leadership of the Black Panthers militant group.” As another part of his scheme, he had actively leafleted information about the Black Panthers during that “turbulent time in American history, fanned by opposition to the war in Vietnam and growing uncertainty about the future of the civil rights movement following the assassinations two years earlier of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.”

The Black Panthers are one of the groups represented in this collection, and I was able to look at some of the same call-to-arms literature that Reed distributed way back in the 1960s. A chapter was never even established in Minnesota, but then FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called the Black Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”

Having these primary source materials available to such a wide audience makes it possible for researchers to examine them independent of any suppositions or biases that have been placed on them by others, allowing for new context and understandings of these time periods and groups.

A Solid Collection

Primary source archives have become very popular as digitization projects for key collections are being funded by corporations that are able to get a return on their investment through the fees that they charge buyers. For the archives themselves, the digitizations are something that most likely would never happen otherwise. Political Extremism & Radicalism in the Twentieth Century is an excellent example of the growing corpus of primary source materials being made available and broadly bundled with advanced search, analysis, and display options.

Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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