Häuserkämpfe: An Inside Look at Researching in DIY Archives

Rote Flora juli 07

Die Rote Flora in Hamburg, 2007

In Brief: This article is an interview with Jake Smith, a PhD student at the University of Chicago who spent over a year in Germany conducting his dissertation research in archives. Many of the archives he visited in support of his project, “Häuserkämpfe: Squatting, Urban Renewal, and the Crisis of Dwelling in West Germany, 1970-1995,” were small, do-it-yourself (DIY) collections curated and cared for by motivated individuals within squats. This interview delves into his experiences conducting research in this environment.

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In a recent conversation with a colleague she stated, “We are all amateur archivists in our own right.” Of course she is right. We all have something that we keep and cherish, whether they are memories or physical objects. But what happens when amateur archivists are just a bit more organized, when they are a bit more official, yet still unofficial? When they are do-it-yourself (DIY) archives?

Many DIY archival collections exist, whether they are kept by a family member, community historian, or an unofficial archivist as part of a grassroots organization. What is it like for researchers to use these unofficial, DIY archives? This question popped in to my head while catching up with a college friend in Chicago during ALA Annual 2013. My friend, Jake Smith, a classmate from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, had recently returned from living abroad in Germany to pursue research for his dissertation. As he explained more about his project and research, I became inspired to figure out how to share his experiences with Lead Pipe readers and our professional community.

Jake is currently working toward a PhD in History from the University of Chicago. His dissertation project, “Häuserkämpfe ((in German this translates to “urban warfare”)): Squatting, Urban Renewal, and the Crisis of Dwelling in West Germany, 1970-1995,” took him to Germany for over a year to conduct research. Much of the research Jake conducted while living in Germany was archival, both in official archives and in more unofficial DIY archives. The following interview with Jake is an extension of our conversation that I hope will shed light not only on an archival researcher’s perspective, but will also bring to the fore the existence and importance of DIY archives.


Emily: I love the title of your dissertation project. It sounds very much like a project that would be suited to the Urban Studies discipline. Could you briefly describe your dissertation research?

Jake: In my dissertation, I trace the emergence and development of a peculiar form of pan-European spatial activism from its origin in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and London, to its radicalization in the crucible of the 1980/81 European youth revolts, and finally to its partial diffusion in the spatially-circumscribed “scenes” of the late 1980s and 1990s. Focusing primarily on the squatting movement, I argue that these forms of spatial activism should be resituated within the context of a larger “crisis of dwelling” in postwar Europe, a crisis of the built environment and its effects on practices of sociability, community, and being-at-home.

E: You lived in Berlin for a year (or more) to conduct research for this project. Could you talk about how you approached research in a foreign country? What was your biggest unexpected challenge?

J: Although it should not have been unexpected, my biggest challenge was mastering the bureaucratic language necessary to navigate German institutions. Indeed, while my conversational German was perfectly adequate I was ill-equipped to deal with the institutional jargon that was necessary not only to gain access to sensitive archival material but also to procure a residence visa, sign a lease, and register with the police.

E: This reminds me of a Kafka-esque experience I had in Munich. My mother sent me my knee braces (a product of my surgeries) so that I could feel comfortable playing frisbee and not worry about re-injuring my knees. She marked the package “medical equipment” so of course that raised suspicion. I had to go pick up my package and open it in front of a customs officer. The package was held in an enormously and surprisingly empty building that reminded me of the Wayne Estate. I had to walk through a series of empty rooms to find where I needed to be. But I digress. You mention that part of the challenge was dealing with institutional jargon to access archival materials. Did you encounter any strange policies in the archives you visited?

J: Ha! I had a similar experience with customs in Berlin in which I was forced to open a box of Halloween candy in front of a small group of officials who, after much discussion, decided that the candy was of no value and that I would thus not be required to pay any extra fees. As to strange policies in the archives, this was certainly not the case in the DIY archives where anything reeking of official policy was deemed distasteful. In the official archives, by contrast, there were some hurdles such as the requirement that I fill out official request forms to view sensitive materials and then wait weeks for them to be approved. Ultimately, though, I was given access to the vast majority of the archival collections I wished to consult so my complaints should be taken with a grain of salt.

E: You mentioned that you visited squats with some DIY home archives and little libraries. How did you find these libraries? Did you have to go hunting for them or were they out in the open? What challenges did you encounter in trying to gather information from these one-of-a-kind collections?

J: The DIY archives, or Bewegungsarchive [(social) movement archive] as they are known in Germany, are open to the public however they can be difficult to find since they are not as well known as the more official archives. While developing my research topic, I came across the website for the archive at the Rote Flora in Hamburg and quickly found that there were similar archives in Berlin, Freiburg and other cities throughout Germany and Europe more broadly. Indeed, it turns out that there is a surprisingly extensive network of alternative archives throughout Europe. I think it would be highly productive for academic libraries and archives to forge closer connections with this vast network of DIY archives.

E: My colleague, Hugh Rundle, sent me an article to read entitled “The Librarian as Insider-Ethnographer,” ((this article was written by Jessie Lymn, who graciously provided feedback on the questions I posed to Jake, and also the final interview)) which discusses the role that some individuals play in squat/DIY libraries. What do you think is the motivation for these individuals to act as a community’s archivist or librarian?

J: I thought about this issue while doing my research but was not able to come up with a definitive answer. I think, in part, their motivation comes from the fact that they were — and oftentimes still are — involved with progressive activism in Germany and believe that more effective forms of activism must necessarily emerge from a historically grounded understanding of the activist past. Thus, instead of constantly reinventing the wheel each time a new problem emerges, German activists can – theoretically at least – utilize these archives to look back on the legacies of 1980/81, 1968, and even the Communist resistance to the Nazi State. Another possible motivation may simply be the sheer joy of collecting personally resonant artifacts. Such archival collections – be they alternative or mainstream – facilitate, I would argue, feelings of historical embeddedness, feelings that one has a legible place in the broad sweep of historical time.

E: Interesting. Do you think either of these reasons mirrors your passion and drive for the topic as a historiographer? Do you feel a particular emotional connection to your research on the topic– aside, of course, from the normal feelings and obstacles of writing a dissertation?

J: I do feel an emotional connection with much of the material. On a very basic level, I sympathize both with the political positions and the cultural products of many of these activists. It is, after all, hard not to be enthralled with German punk music, wacky public art projects, and critiques of racist violence. I was also, however, moved by their emotionally resonant critique of social isolation in modern cities, their desire for interpersonal warmth, and their persistent attempts to forge connections with very diverse urban populations. Walking around Chicago, I’m oftentimes struck by the utter coldness of urban life, the uncanny feeling of being surrounded by strangers. I do realize, of course, that this is simply the nature of the urban experience, however, I can’t help but to wish for something more. The desire for social warmth within the West German Left – what some have referred to as a “Sehnsucht nach Nähe” [literally “yearning for closeness”]  – is, in my opinion at least, really quite moving.

E: What do you think is the challenge for historians such as yourself when it comes to conducting research with materials that are “underground” or “DIY”? And how do you think those challenges spread to librarians and archivists? Did you sense any tension between the academy and less traditional systems? How did libraries and these DIY archivists react to your inquiries?

J: By and large the archivists at these alternative archives were extraordinarily welcoming. They made coffee, engaged in small talk, and seemed genuinely interested in my project. I found this conviviality to be rather astounding given the fact that I was an American PhD student with progressive views but without an activist pedigree. The warm welcome I received at these alternative archives was all the more surprising in light of my experiences at official archives, which, though not at all unpleasant, lacked a sense of interpersonal warmth. There are, of course, tensions between the academy and alternative archives, many of which revolve around funding. Indeed, many of the archivists expressed a quiet sense of frustration that they received little to no funding while mainstream libraries with far smaller collections received an abundance of official funding. These feelings were, however, never made explicit — the archivists were simply too friendly to engage in such overtly hostile attitudes.

E: Did you learn any more political or policy oriented insights as to why and how these archives have been underfunded?

J: It’s possible that there is still a fear that such material is incendiary in some sense, that it has the potential to incite the youth to revolt. It does, after all, often advocate for the overturning of capitalism and state power. It is also possible that official sources of funding simply distrust the organizational abilities of the DIY archives and worry that they would be ineffective in the preservation and acquisition of archival documents. I would argue that both of these fears are misplaced though I’m sure many would disagree with such an assessment.

E: How did you gain trust from collectors in order to conduct your research and see these unique collections? Do you continue to have relationships with these collectors and collections and if so, is there anything in your background or identity that you think enables collectors to trust you?

J: A good question to which I, unfortunately, must answer: I have no idea. I simply laid it on the table, told them what I was working on, and then tried to be as courteous as possible. I’m not sure they ever fully trusted me but they certainly got used to me and gave me access to their materials. Part of this goes back, I believe, to the tendency of radical leftists in Germany to focus on interpersonal connections and more “authentic” forms of community. Part of it also probably stems from the simple fact that spending time with people tends to result in collegiality — though I may be a bit too optimistic on this front. In any case, I don’t think they had any real reason to trust me with their collections but they did so nonetheless.

E: How do you think your experience may have been different if you were a part of the “authentic” community?

J: I don’t think they would have treated many any differently, though I do believe that I would have been looking for different types of material.

E: Did anything about the academic libraries you visited in Germany surprise you?

J: I was most surprised by the fact that, in official German libraries, it was next to impossible to browse the stacks. When you enter an institution like the Staatsbibliothek [national library] in Berlin you first have to leave all of your personal belongings in a locker outside of the main reading rooms. Once in the reading rooms you then have the option of perusing a limited number of reference books or placing an order for the books you wish to look at, some of which can then be taken off site. Too often, we take for granted the extraordinary freedoms offered by something as basic as open stacks.

E: So how did you know what books you wanted to request? Do you feel like using the library catalog was a good enough way for you to do that?

J: I think that by the end of my stay I was becoming somewhat more adept at finding the books I needed but most of the time I found myself groping in the dark. They have search engines but as anyone who has ever used such tools well knows, they are not a substitute for good old-fashioned browsing.

E: Did you have to modify your research approach based on availability of resources or the kind of library you were visiting?

J: To a certain extent, yes. Initially, I intended to use official documents such as police records and government reports but quickly found that these are highly restricted. In some cases, I was able to gain access to these documents by applying for special privileges and assuring the archivists that I would not be publishing any names or other personal data. Reflecting back, I should have expected this given that many of the documents detail illegal activities and could be used for all of the wrong reasons.

E: Would you mind giving an example of the kinds of activities you were able to uncover and what those protected documents told you?

J: Primarily these were police documents describing criminal activities during riots such as breaking storefront windows, throwing rocks at police, and generally causing havoc. There were also official documents created during police stake-outs of the squats which detailed the activities surrounding the houses. The activities described in these documents are not really surprising, however the fact that they include names make them highly sensitive.

E: If you had to pick one pamphlet that was your favorite, which would it be and why?

J: It would probably not be a pamphlet at all but one of the many documentary films produced by and about the movement. One of my favorites is Paßt bloß auf, which documents the squatting movement in Freiburg in the early 1980s. The film is exceptional not only for its documentary footage of demonstrations and life inside of the squats but for its artistic innovation as well.

E: What is your favorite story from visiting the squats?

J: I can’t say that I actually have a favorite story or experience. Not because I didn’t enjoy my time visiting the alternative archives in Germany but because there were many small moments in which I felt infinitely lucky to be in such archives. For example, when the heat went out at the Rote Flora archive in Hamburg and everyone went about their work in hats, gloves, and coats. Or sitting and drinking a cup of coffee with the archivist in Freiburg. Or the wonderful sound of the teakettle at the Papier Tiger archive in Berlin. Fantastic experiences, fantastic places, fantastic people…

E: Thank you for sharing your experiences, Jake.


After my discussion with Jake I was struck with how little I know of DIY archives that may exist in the United States. Certainly I know of Docs Populi, Lincoln Cushing’s project that brings “documents to the people,” but I am woefully uninformed of much else. As library workers we  engage with our communities, and discovering and supporting DIY archival projects seems a natural fit. Do you know of any DIY archives? How do engage with them?

Many thanks to Jessie Lymn, not only for her inspiring article but also for helping review these interview questions and review the final interview. Additional thanks to Lead Pipe colleagues Brett, Hugh, Erin, and Ellie for providing additional feedback.

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9 Responses

  1. I find this subject matter extremely interesting. Though I don’t personally know of any DIY archives, I’m sure they exist. I’m sure they exist right here in Detroit where there is a long history of counter culture/lefty activism. I hope that there are some people who do know of these underground treasures.

  2. Bob Schroeder

    Yes – this article made me reflect on the work archivists do WITH various communities, as opposed to FOR them regarding helping to preserve their own stuff. Alana Kumbier has written about “archiving from the ground up” and her dissertation ( Ephemeral Material: Developing a Critical Archival Praxis) is a good source for that info.

    I suspect her new book ( Ephemeral Material: Queering the Archive, from Litwan) will be interesting too.

  3. I have experience in DIY archives both in Germany and the US, and I would like to give some feedback. First, I disagree with the statement that “we are all amateur archivists in our own right.”
    Are we also all amateur doctors because we can diagnose a cold? Am I an amateur researcher because I read books? Are we also all amateur documentarians because we film birthday parties? Calling everyone an archivist or everyone a curator discounts the traditionally feminized, underpaid, and under appreciated work of curators and archivists and further props up the case that archival science is not a skilled profession.
    Taking the viewpoint that “everyone is an archivist” does not help the field and in fact is a detrimental and backward approach. Everyone is not an archivist, much like every piece of paper does not need to be kept and cherished.
    On another note:
    In the US, some DIY archives become “legitimized” by institutional support, but are able to keep their DIY spirit. I worked at the Barnard Zine Library for three years, but there are other major DIY archives that are actually still independent and much like the archives that Jake and I encountered in Germany. (see bottom of post)
    I also worked at das Archiv der Jugendkulturen in Berlin as a volunteer for 6 months and found that the DIY spirit was a lot like what I encountered in personal archives in the US. There’s never enough money or support to run, and they are in a constant state of flux, but they’re scrappy and wonderfully strange. They are also deeply problematic in terms of conservation, and hold incredible materials that are probably endangered in the long term.
    While I appreciate idiosyncratic filing systems, usable archives, and openness, at the same time, that often means disorganization and poorly preserved materials. Archiv der Jugendkultur suffers from all of these issues, but still manage to make it work. They strive to create quality work in a pretty difficult situation with limited funding. That being said, it’s easy to romanticize the “lone arranger” working to “save” archival materials, but we should save the romanticism for a day when skilled archivists and communities of researchers are valued, well-paid, and well-funded.
    Here are some DIY archives in North America:
    Folkstreams began as a DIY archive (folkstreams.net)
    Papercut Zine Library http://www.papercutzinelibrary.org/wordpress/
    Barnard’s list of other zine libraries: http://zines.barnard.edu/zine-libraries
    an entire blog about DIY archives: http://diyarchives.blogspot.com/
    Art Metropol in Toronto: http://www.artmetropole.com/
    QZAP: http://www.qzap.org/

    I can probably think of more, but here’s a start. Feel free to get in touch.

    1. I am just now seeing your comment and my apologies for being so delinquent! Thank you so much for sharing your perspective and experience, and I appreciate your point about the phrase “we are all archivists…” I hadn’t thought of the power this now seemingly flip statement has, and what detriments it imposes onto the profession. Thank you for sharing this, and my apologies.