American Civil Liberties Union Papers, 1912–1990 | Reference eReviews

This rich and absorbing database will find a broad range of uses. It is suitable for large public libraries but is especially apt for academic institutions that support the study of law, history, sociology, race, and gender.
The Making of Modern Law: American Civil Liberties Union Papers, 1912–1990  Gale, Cengage Learning; Free trial available

By Henrietta Verma

CONTENT Part of Gale’s Primary Sources program, this new archive offers access to more than two million pages of reports, correspondence, legal briefs, newspaper clippings, U.S. Supreme Court cases, and information on groups that have worked with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). These documents were sourced from the ACLU and the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Collection at Princeton University.

On the homepage, an Explore Collections link invites readers to browse the material; alternatively, it’s possible to click on See What’s Inside and read, or have played aloud, an overview of what the resource offers. Clicking on the browse option, users will discover that the collection is divided into two main chronological parts: “The Roger Baldwin Years, 1912–1950” and “Years of Expansion, 1950–1990.”

Subarchives within the “Baldwin Years” section (pacifist and author Baldwin was one of the founders of the ACLU and its executive director until 1950) offer a rundown of the social upheavals that faced the United States during that era, with files covering issues and events such as academic freedom, “Enemy Aliens,” insanity cases, religious freedom, “War Hysteria,” and the ACLU’s bail fund. Also offered are files by the U.S. State Department along with material on federal government cases. Rather than choosing one of these topics, readers can also click on “view all 2,285 [documents].”

Documents within the more recent part of the collection cover liberties relating to technology such as radio and TV, as well as obscenity, international cases, and access to material that was formerly marked confidential. Researchers may also view all documents rather than selecting one topic.

USABILITY Browsing the database is fruitful and eye-opening, as it illustrates the life-altering work that the ACLU deals with routinely. For example, searching the item type “report” (other types are correspondence, file, letter, and article) within the “Baldwin Years” section, one may choose the entry “Correspondence-Federal Departments: Procedures In Legislative Hearings House Committee on Un-American Activities” and read a report on “Military Loyalty Inquiries.” This sometimes-chilling paper includes a 1950 letter from a soldier to the ACLU asking about which publications it considers safe for him to read, and the ACLU’s letter on his behalf to the army.

The letter reads in part, “I would appreciate any information you may be able to send me as to…what extent the Constitutional guarantees of civil liberties are applicable to servicemen, and…whether there is a list of subversive publications, a subscription to or the reading of which by a serviceman would subject him to punishment.”

Elsewhere in this section is a 1940 ACLU press release detailing director Baldwin’s intent for the organization to take on the illiberal tendencies he foresaw in an upcoming legislative session. “The Union proposes to promote bills,” the press release reads, “which will afford easier access to the ballot by minority political parties, start abolition of the poll tax in one or more southern states….”

Within the “Expansion Years” section, court testimony is added as a document type, containing material such as a court transcript on the 1979–80 Superior Court of New Jersey case “Black Panther Party vs. Police Department,” in which Black Panther representatives made demands such as “decent housing fit for shelter of Human Beings.”

PDFs of archival materials comprise the items in this collection, and the documents in this more recent section, some of which were digitally produced, tend to be more legible than the scans of earlier handwritten or typed papers. The database offers zooming, color and contrast adjustment, document search, along with the option to download an OCR (optical character recognition) version of the material, so even the earlier items can be manipulated to suit the user’s viewing needs. (While the OCR is hit or miss, it does help.)

It’s also possible to perform basic and advanced searches. Using the basic search box prominently placed on the homepage to retrieve materials on abortion, for example, uncovers mostly ACLU files but also correspondence, reports, court testimony, and legislation. A look at one result shows how the organization has worked over the past century to defend the rights of those with conservative views as well as liberal ones. In a 1978 letter to the National Broadcasting Network, the ACLU protests that the cancellation of an antiabortion sermon that was to be televised by NBC “offends the spirit and thrust of the First Amendment.”

Advanced search, which allows variations on a term, enables several opportunities to become specific. The default is a keyword search, but researchers may also choose document or publication title, subject, or a search of the entire document. Searches are further narrowed, if necessary, by using the publication date, document type, illustrated works, and/or collection options, which each offer multiple choices and text boxes for typing desired limits.

Whether browsing or employing a basic or advanced search, users are presented a visual representation of their results set. Search results for the term Vietnam, for example, are accompanied by a bar graph showing that most results are from the years 1960–69.

Using the Term Frequency tool to explore Vietnam and Veteran presents a line graph illustrating the number of times the two terms appear in ACLU materials. Vietnam sees its first mention in 1948, with peak call outs occurring in 1973, and then the use of the term plummets in the years following. Veterans have been mentioned more steadily in ACLU papers, with the term reaching its height of use in 1948.

The material here spans 20th century ACLU history, up until 1990. Hopefully, the recently renewed interest in the organization in the wake of the 2016 election will lead to an expanded resource in the future.

PRICING The cost of American Civil Liberties Union Papers, 1912–1990, is based on an institution’s full-time enrollment or size of the population served. Purchase price for the smallest academic libraries starts at $5,750. Fees for public libraries begin at $4,025.

verdict This rich and absorbing database will find a broad range of uses. It is suitable for large public libraries but is especially apt for academic institutions that support the study of law, history, sociology, race, and gender.

Henrietta Verma is Senior Editorial Communications Specialist, National Information Standards Organization

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