Friday, September 29, 2023

'Stories of life': A look into MSU’s radicalism collection

May 30, 2023
<p>Material on display from the Stephen O. Murray and Keelung Hong Special Collections at the MSU Main Library.</p>

Material on display from the Stephen O. Murray and Keelung Hong Special Collections at the MSU Main Library.

Photo by Henry Szymecko | The State News

It’ll take over two years to move it all. More than 500,000 individual items are crammed onto the shelves, lining the cozy basement walls and making a maze out of the beige floors of Michigan State University's Library.

“There have been many times when I had a pile of something that I needed to sort, and the only flat surface was the top of the photocopier or the paper cutter,” said Ruth Anne Jones, former cataloger and current outreach librarian for the MSU libraries’ special collections. “No table space, nothing.”

First established in 1962 to house the library’s “special” materials, the Stephen O. Murray and Keelung Hong Special Collections now includes pieces from a nearly infinite variety of topics. 

Over 40,000 cookbooks. 300,000 comic books. An impressive assortment of books on fencing. Nearly every issue of TV Guide. And it will all need to be moved from the basement to the east wing of the third floor.

“Considering we are 150 feet from a river that floods every couple of years, having our stuff in the basement is a bad idea,” Jones said. 

The third floor, she said, will also have more space for the collection and give employees a pleasant place to work.

Special collections draws in researchers from around the world to study its contents. Some subcollections are the largest in the country, and many contain documents found nowhere else. 

But one of the most notable – and controversial – is the radicalism collection.

“We started collecting political radicalism in the early 1960s,” Jones said. “Special collections was offered a huge amount, like 80 boxes or something, of material from the communist party of the USA.”

The library began collecting right-wing materials later, making the collection one of the only to catalog both sides of the political spectrum.

“About 15 or 20 years ago we received the first boxes of an enormous donation ... from a faculty member at the University of Florida whose lifelong research subject was antisemitism,” Jones said.

She said the faculty member collected the material himself from attending rallies and events of neonazis and other hate groups, picking up every pamphlet and free flier he could get.

That donation became the basis of the arsenal collection, the section of the radicalism collection that holds extremist right-wing material. The donor requested his name not be attached to the collection to avoid backlash from the hate groups the materials came from.

“It’s just such ugly material – people who want to hate,” Jones said, who worked as a cataloger when the arsenal collection was first donated. “I felt like I wanted to wash my hands all the time. Just symbolically, you know.”


Selections on display from the Stephen O. Murray and Keelung Hong Special Collections in the MSU library.

MSU history and Jewish studies professor Kirsten Fermaglich said while the content of the arsenal collection can be hard to handle, it serves a purpose.

“It’s important to know there’s a history, that there were people in the 1930s who believed these things, who wrote these pamphlets, who distributed them, people who read them and believed them,” Fermaglich said. “That had meaning. It shaped Jewish ... and American life then.”

Head of special collections Leslie McRoberts said the radicalism collection boils down to stories of life.

“It’s life, and culture, and how people and ideas are then portrayed,” McRoberts said.

One example is the story of Angelina Grimké, one of the first women writers of antislavery literature in 1836. The library holds a reprinting of the pamphlet that drove South Carolina leaders to threaten Grimké with imprisonment if she returned home.

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Another is the story of Stephen Murray, whom, alongside his husband Keelung Hong, the collection is named after. A graduate of MSU’s James Madison College in 1968, Murray later became a notable activist and academic. The library holds several of his letters back to his hometown in Minnesota, expressing his discomfort over the heavy police presence on campus.

Among the collection is also the story of Henry Ford, who brought masses of workers to Michigan to build one of the first mass-produced vehicles, the Model T. The library collects issues of "The International Jew," a set of antisemitic pamphlets that Ford financed.

One pamphlet, entitled "The Jew in Character and Business," was reprinted and published by the Ku Klux Klan in 1941. The pamphlet contains quotations from "The Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion," a widely spread document that purports to be the meeting notes of a group of Jewish power brokers about their plans for world domination.

“(The Protocols) is used to back up arguments with no historical validity," Jones said. “It’s very well known to scholars that there was no such meeting.” 

Jones explained that the idea that there are underground groups trying to take over the world is very embedded in extreme right wing beliefs.

The radicalism collection also contains the only copy in the world of a conspiratorial book on the Sandy Hook shooting. Some claim the tragedy, in which Adam Lanza killed 20 students and faculty members at Sandy Hook Elementary School, was a government hoax meant to target the Second Amendment. Conspiracies were spread by far-right radio show host Alex Jones, who claimed the event was “completely fake, with actors.”

McRoberts said she believes materials like these are important for documenting conspiracy theorists and fake news performance artists so that we can recall and reflect on their actions.

"There’s always going to be someone who says ‘the Holocaust never happened,’ or ‘Sandy Hook never happened,’ or ‘911 never happened,’” McRoberts said. “We collect this material so history does not repeat itself. We hope there is never another Alex Jones.”

McRoberts said it’s “gut wrenching” to see materials denying that mass tragedies took place or were as deadly as they were. 

“If we don’t remember that these things happened, they may happen again,” Jones said. “This is evidence, and someone has to keep it.”


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