Day Two of the GLBT ALMS conference at the CUNY Grad Center. Less Process/Less Privacy: Implications of Minimal Processing for GLBT Collections with Jodi Berkowitz, Laura Micham, Heather Murray, and Minnie Bruce Pratt.
I thought this panel was very well put together, presumably by its moderator, Laura Micham, who is the Director of the Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture. I learned that I've been mispronouncing her name wrong in my head all these years. It's not "mee-chum." I think it's more like "mih-kum." But anyway, I thought it was great that Laura assembled an archivist from the Center, a scholar who has done research there, and a writer/activist who has given her archives to the Center.
Laura introduced the session by telling those of us who didn't know about the Meissner/Greene system of telling less about more stuff in archival collections (if I'm getting that right). Their big deal paper was "More Product, Less Process: Pragmatically Revamping Traditional Processing Approaches to Deal with Late Twentieth Century Collections." At least that's the version for which I found a nice freely downloadable pdf. I basically see it as a quantity vs. quality argument, and can see both sides. When it comes to cataloging the zines at Barnard, I feel pretty passionate about doing the most complete item level cataloging I can, but real archivists deal with a lot crazier shit than I do, like a hundred unmarked boxes of stuff that may have 100 kinds of content in each container, belonging to a dead subject whose family is hostile to the deceased's former lifestyle.
Jodi Berkowitz, a Barnard alumna, btw, was the archivist on the panel. She discussed the benefits of working with the donor and getting to see the collection before it arrives so you can start to think about how to organize and process it ahead of time. She touched on the topic of third party privacy--that being the privacy of those who sent letters to the donor or are mentioned in the materials in her collection. Just because Minnie Bruce is out, doesn't mean her lover from 1975 is.
This got me to thinking about the subjectivity, or really expertise, required of the archivist and how in cases like this, and many others, it is essential to have someone who knows their shit making the decisions and how this quantity over quality movement could be just another threat against knowledge workers--professional labor like librarians and scholars who are expensive, but because we are worth it. That's not to say that I think it's unimportant to provide access to more stuff, sometimes at the expense of detail, but I do think it has to be our intention to eventually do the job right. There needs to be a lot more advocating for quality library staff going on. We have to make administrators see why we're valuable, or they'll give all the positions and money to IT.
Next up was Heather Murray, a Canadian scholar who compared her experiences at the loving womb of the Lesbian Herstory Archives with the sterile surroundings of I forget which medical research facility. She talked about the preservation of "enemy literature," the materials of hate groups and other wacky primary sources like advice literature from the 50s. She also addressed third party privacy, in this case that of a child, now 13, whose birth certificate was part of her mother's sperm donor, a prominent gay activist's archives. In explaining to the mother why she wouldn't steal the birth certificate, Murray concluded that this teenager's birth certificate from the late 20th century is just as valuable as a medieval manuscript, and should be treated as such. The rest of my notes on this presentation are a little incoherent:
"Archival adventure" without the finding aid. @ community archive vs. academic research.
I guess that was wanting some reassurance that our academic and research libraries' uptight rules are valid and serve research, vs. going into some wonderful community or volunteer archive that organizes things in their own way and don't treat you as if you're about to defecate on their materials if they don't keep a close eye on you. What do you think?
The final speaker was the mesmerizing southern lady of pedigree Minnie Bruce Pratt. She happens to be a born archivist who squandered her archives talents by devoting herself to lesbian activism and writing. This is a woman who prints out her sent email messages and files them, every six months boxing that half year's materials. It is also to her credit that she has decided to part with her materials while she's still living, so that she can have some impact on what happens to them. It turns out that this deal with Duke took nearly 20 years to do. They first approached her ages ago, but for one thing they simply didn't offer Pratt enough money, and just as importantly, she wasn't ready to give her things up yet. I appreciated her valuing her life's work to the point where she wouldn't give it away. As an activist, Pratt had no steady income, no health insurance, and no retirement. She did think about donating the materials to a community archive, but she had concerns about such institutions' stability.
I didn't take a ton of notes because Minnie Bruce is a good storyteller, so I didn't feel like interrupting my listening to write things down.
One audience member had an interesting thought about using an archive as an organizing tool. She wanted to make the archival remains of a recently departed activist as public as possible, but was concerned about the privacy issues, including her own privacy as a friend of the deceased.