FIRST ARCHIVES ROAD SHOW
 

ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS

(Great Britain)

Archivistsí Workshop - Shire Hall, Hereford,
September 7th, 2002

Third Workshop

Collections and Classification of Archives

Paper presented by Peter J.H.

Avon South Intergroup and South Midlands Regional Archivist (Alternate)

The collecting of AA archives was started by our co-founder Bill W. less than twenty years after the founding of our Fellowship. Bill had the foresight and the vision to see we needed to preserve an historical record of our movementís origins so that "myth does not predominate over fact."

It is possible to trace this back to June 1949 and chart correspondence between Bill and Jack Alexander, the author of the famous 1941 Saturday Evening Post article. Bill wanted Jack Alexander to do a follow-up article in order for him to record the rapid changes then happening in the Fellowship. Jack was unwilling to do this so soon; only nine years since his last look at AA. Jack thought not much had changed to justify another look: that the psychology of drinkers was the same, and AAís method of dealing with alcoholics was also unchanged. Bill disagreed and told him that with the introduction of the 12 Traditions, Alcoholics Anonymous was like no other society on earth; that there was much new material for him to consider, albeit most of it was still in Billís head, but that there was enough new material there to form the basis for a new article.

But even before this time Bill was aware of the need to record events as he encouraged Lois to keep a journal and a copy of all their correspondence. However, it was from 1950 that Bill and Nell Wing (his secretary) really concerned themselves with obtaining and preserving historical records. While from 1950 to 1954 Bill was writing the 12&12 he was also collecting oral histories from old-timers in Akron and Cleveland. Bill would travel out West specifically to record these people something which shows how much importance he gave to archival work. He also set about recording the recollections of the Trustees, the members of staff at the office like Ruth Hock and the non-alcoholic clergymen who had played such a vital part in establishing AA.

As an example on the 23rd of February 1955, Bill wrote to Clarence S. in Cleveland asking him to record his recollections, and this gives an accurate insight into the methods and purpose of archives.

"I would like to have you make a tape recording about your recollections of the old days. There isnít any rush about this as the preparation of a history will have to be done carefully and gradually over the next 2 or 3 years. I have though made a couple of trips to Akron and Cleveland and have already interviewed quite a lot of the old folks, so as to be sure and get the record straight. You can get a good running start at the history by retelling your own personal story how AA came to your attention; what your first impressions were and how it developed in the first few years in Cleveland. I hope you can dwell at length on the difficulties as well as the humour of those years, relating as many anecdotes as possible. You can say anything you like being assured that nothing will be published without your consent. The preliminary investigation shows that it isnít hard to prepare a fact, what happened, that is dates when people came in, groups started and so forth. The hard thing is to lay hold of the atmosphere of the whole proceedings and the anecdotal material that will make the early experience live. When I first set out to gather material I ran into a little resistance. I pointed out to them that if the old-timers in Akron and Cleveland wouldnít go on record as to what happened, how in Godís name could I or anyone else tell an accurate story for the future. Clarence, I feel that you should be one of those very best sources. So think it over. Make an outline of topics that you want to talk about and go to it at any length at all -- recording tapes are cheap. So ransack your memory if you will."

In 1955 Bill appointed Nell Wing as Archivist and as the oral histories began to pour into the office between 1955 and 1960 Nell found herself with just one of many ongoing projects she had to do. In 1965 she did manage to make a small beginning on classification but it was not until after Billís death in 1971 that Nell really got down to serious archival activity. In particular, she received encouragement from a member down in Florida, Tom S., who kept encouraging her to keep going when others thought she was creating a monster. It seemed now the time for archives had finally come and an Archive Committee was formed in 1973. In 1975 an archive office at GSO was officially opened by Lois and it is worth remembering that even archivists are not perfect as nobody that day thought to record Loisís words.

In 1980 at the World Convention in New Orleans two English members came away from Nellís early morning workshop on archives determined to start something similar in England. On return they obtained a copy of the guidelines and contacted the General Secretary in London and their local Intergroup inviting them to join with them in this new form of service but there is no record of a reply being received. So they set up a small archive committee within their own group. Its remit was simple: to see what was out there, and if anything, was it worth recording?

What happened next was amazing! They were given Press cuttings and photographs of AA in the West Country from the early days. A member loaned the committee over a 1000 letters written by Sackville detailing many of the important events and of people in Englandís history. For instance, did you know Sackville convened an AA public meeting in Cardiff in 1950 after first refereeing an International sports match?

The little committee then received an audio tape from probably the first Al-Anon member in Europe whoís husband had been an early AA member in the West of England. The tape charted the first AA meetings at Mickleton, Evesham, Cheltenham and Bath during thefirst 15 years. They then received a tape of the founder of AA in Bristol which led to even more valuable research being done in that City. It is worth remembering that two of the oldest and most active members in the West Country both got sober in the same group in Washington, DC.

In 1985 Nell Wing came to the Bristol Reunion and convened an archives meeting. Staff from service offices in Britain and Ireland attended, something which became the launch pad for them to display their own national archives. One last thing about Nell; she was a great one for encouraging oral histories and she said: "as archivists we should never go anywhere without tape recorders..." .

Bristol is fortunate to have had an exceptional member in its groups who had the foresight to record what was happening in the Fellowship at home and abroad, particularly from 1968 onwards through the unofficial AA journal, Bristol Fashion: dates of events, conventions, workshops, gatherings etc., the opening of new groups, recording the deaths of old-timers, articles and observations on our AA life, all written by members themselves and with plenty of anecdotes to liven things up. It also makes up something of a "spiritual soap opera" due to its length of publication and the fact that it became a means for keeping members in touch with each other from around the world. Bristol Fashion is as yet an untapped primary source of information on the growth and depth of our Fellowship.

It was through an idea given by one of the readers of Bristol Fashion that led to the First European Convention of Alcoholics Anonymous in Bristol in 1971 and convened by the South West Intergroup, SWIG for short! Most of the earliest members in Britain and Europe attended this event as did a whole host of GSO staff and Trustees from New York and London. It also brought AA to the attention of the Vatican through the attendance of Archbishop Enricci as a guest and who was afforded a full diplomatic welcome to the City for the express purpose of attending the European Convention. Another often overlooked fact in England is the role of clergymen in helping to establish AA. This is an area that needs much more research.

The exceptional Bristol member had the foresight also to keep all his correspondence with the early members in England and some in North America. The archive contains something like 15000 items of correspondence worth preserving: something approaching 500 tapes, on which all the talks have actually been heard in person: there is information on the formation and work of the service structure in England over the last four decades. Also in the archive is a library of AA books: all Alcoholics Anonymous hard back books known as "the family books," mostly first editions, many subsequent editions inscribed by a few authors/editors, AA friends and AA archivists past and present. There are early printings of four first editions of the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, which the archive has either inherited from the owner or has had donated. There is regret in our Region that the 2nd edition Big Book inscribed by Bill himself to Frank of Calne could not somehow have stayed in the Regional Archives. Yet on further consideration, having this particular treasure securely housed in the National Archives is the very safest place for it.

There is also a huge contribution of alcoholism-related books written on psychology, medicine and spirituality. The library contains in all approximately 560 books as well as numerous booklets and early pamphlets.

You may ask the question, should we as AA archivists collect anything other than AA documents? Bill answers this question in a letter to Milton Maxwell who first drew Billís attention to the story of the Washingtonians. "I am extremely glad that such a thorough going study as yours has been made available. Here and there I have noted other attempts but nothing at all comparable to what you have done. I wish every AA could indelibly burn the history of the Washingtonians in his memory. It is an outstanding example of how and how not we ought to conduct ourselves. In a sense AA has never had a problem seriously threatening our overall unity. Yet I notice some AAs are complacent enough we never shall. You have certainly done your bit to rectify that condition."

In the archive is an original Hansard copy of an Act of Parliament, put through from a Private Memberís Bill in 1986 by Sir Bernard Braine, M.P. who was a good friend of Alcoholics Anonymous. This Act was needed to keep AA within the law of the land, because at the time it found itself in breach of a new Charities Act, by adhering to our Tradition of self support, through not accepting nor soliciting outside contributions, which, with its charitable status, it was obliged to do. So rather than change Alcoholics Anonymous in any way, AA had the wisdom and the courage to have the law changed instead. This all provided our Fellowship with lots of good and incredulous attention from the media.

A part of the archive includes extensive records and much memorabilia of a particular group which has been in continuous existence for over thirty years and many of the items on our National Committee Chairmanís list of collectables are in fact already in this group archive. This is because although the founder died some twelve years ago, the first secretary of the group -- a veritable magpie -- is still alive and attending meetings in the very same venue and apparently has never thrown anything away! One of the ways this group has chosen to carry the message is to reconvene in 1981 the annual convention, known as the AA Reunion in Bristol. Here again there is a detailed record of speakers and the organization and of each Reunion and especially of how much fun they always have. In their files is a balance sheet of each event, a copy of which was always lodged at GSO right up until the current era began in the early nineties. This is very impressive and was very much in line with the openness and availability of the Reunion records and accounts.

As regards ownership of the Archive which has been in the possession of the archivist for many years, it is considered that all straightforward and factual items, such as the original material covering the start of Alcoholics Anonymous in the West Country, including the diary of Bristolís founding member, together with a copy of an original 24-hour meditation book which has notes at the back on the formation of Bristolís second group, "belong to AA" as we say. Some of the "family books" and three of the four first editions of the Big Book would fall into this category as well, two printed in the States and one in England! Reunion files and much else besides would also "belong to AA." Three current members of the original archives committee have been invited to act as trustees and custodians of the Archive to fulfill the role of AA in the event of the archivistís death. All other items, that would never ever be displayed would become the property of the Archivistís grown-up children but would remain in the archive and under the custodianship of the trustees. Two stipulations have been made, however. Firstly, that the Archive is never to be broken up and, secondly, that whatever happens to it and whatever the custodians wish to do with it (for example, whether to close the archive or continue working on it) all five trustees must be in unanimous agreement.

The current work on the Archive has been to build on what has already been there for over twenty years and the hope and expectation is that others will come along to help continue the work. My job over the last three years has been to fulfill the late Barbara Tís request that the archive be indexed and to classify what there was. This was not difficult as the nature of the material makes for its own classification. The way ahead is having to scan everything onto disc in order to preserve it. Over time pages are fading especially Jim Hís diary entries of the first couple of years or so of the start of AA in Bristol The archivistís home group also helps out on a regular basis and the Intergroup has voted a nominal sum per month for archive work, it is hoped shortly to be received.

Though very rewarding, it is time consuming work and not many people as yet want to give up their spare time to go leafing through old papers. But it is being done and the index runs to hundreds of pages. So it is with great hope for the future of archives we attend this event today and say that although much of the groundwork has already been done there is much more to do, for as Frank M. said, "Archives is our window on the past, guide to the present, and light for the future."

This is the end of my paper. Thank you very much for listening.

* * *

Sources: Nell Wingís talks at the Reunion in Bristol 1985

Judit Santonís talk at the National Archives Convention, Seattle, 2000

The Archivist, Avon South Intergroup and South Midlands Region


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