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Communist Party Records:The National Organization Department and/or Bureau and/or Commission

This post comes from Hester Goodwin, graduate student in NYU’s Archives and Public History program. For the past year, Hester has been aiding in processing the CPUSA records at Tamiment Library.

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Information Overload by Flickr user Tonz

Processing a huge and complex collection like the CPUSA Records is a project which comes with equally huge and complex challenges. Recently we’ve been struggling to form a clear picture of the Party’s organizational structure, and what I’ve been calling the Organization Department is the perfect example. The Organization Department was in charge of implementing policy made by the CPUSA Central Committee, so clearly it played an important role in the operation of the Party, and generated a massive amount of material. This is all wonderful news for the researcher…if we can figure out what to call it.
We have seen the “Org. Department” referred to as either a “department” or a “commission,” and sometimes both, even in items written by the same person. Usages vary; some individual party members seem to believe there is a difference between a department and a commission, and others seem to use the terms interchangeably. Furthermore, there are mysterious references to an “Organization Bureau,” an ominous-sounding body separate from the Organization Department/Commission.

All of this highlights the challenges faced by archivists processing large, complex collections including materials from many individuals and offices. Institutions always have their own internal jargon, and while the meaning of documents may be clear to insiders, it can be nearly incomprehensible to anyone else. Jillian has created a diagram summarizing what we know now, and we have been combing pamphlets, copies of the CPUSA Constitution, and other administrative records to better understand the role of departments and commissions in the Party. What strategies do you use to combat this problem? How can archivists advise organizations creating their own archives, to prevent this from being an issue in the first place?

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