Archiving Women was a one-day conference "bringing together scholars and archivists to examine feminist practices in the archive."
If I were a little more organized, I could share my notes, but unfortunately they're gone. Instead I'm going to bring up three different threads that for me characterized the event. They are preservation vs. privacy, the de-emphasis of the practitioner, and notable vs. common lives.
Let me say first that I found many of my fellow presenters' talks to be quite fascinating, and I was honored to be asked to participate. What follows is often critical, but I hope it will be understood to be without snark.
The tension between preservation vs. privacy (a topic that was addressed beautifully at the GLBT ALMS conference last spring), was about how researchers view archival holdings vs. how their subjects do. I kind of got the feeling that some of the historians felt that if they were denied anything about a subject's life, or the how her materials came to be in the archive, that they wouldn't be able to tell the person's story and that subsequently it would be like the person had never lived. Speaking for myself, and perhaps for the archivists in the room, while I do understand the scholar's horror at a research subject wanting her letters burned, I am also more sensitive to that donor's needs than I think the scholar is. I'd rather they trust me with some of their stuff than none of it.
Unfortunately, I seemed to be the only front lines handling materials on a daily basis archivist on any of the panels, and I'm not even an archivist. I curate an archive (or archives, as one or two of the presenters explained in some detail), but I'm really an accidental special collections librarian and amateur cataloger. I felt at a disadvantage being the only non-PhD on the bill. I suspect I ended up looking like a bit clumsy in comparison, but I also feel like that's partially a result of being set up (unintentionally) to fail. I'm not saying that the conveners deliberately dissed practioners, but I did feel like an afterthought. Although it was billed as a "conference bringing together scholars and archivists," I think most, if not all, of the outreach was to academic communities. I don't recall the announcement going out over any library lists that I'm on (and I'm on easily a dozen), other than Radical Reference NYC (forwarded by a librarian who heard about because he's in a grad program). Not that the room could have had any more people in it, and not that some librarians and LIS students didn't find their way there somehow. As my friend Kate Eichhorn suggested during the Q&A, it would have been nice to hear, not just from a few more archivists, but from some from institutions, such as the Lesbian Herstory Archives, that were housed outside of academia.
The third tension, that of notable vs. "common" lives, was evident on my panel, the first of the day. One presenter, Alice Kessler-Harris is currently researching Lillian Hellman, whereas Farah Jasmine Griffin presented on Addie Brown, an African-American domestic servant who lived in Hartford, CT in the 19th century. As someone who is bent on bringing the voices of teenagers, radicals, and crafty mamas, among others to the library, I of course am very interested in how the "ordinary" lives get documented--unless we as librarians and archivists go out of our way to find and preserve them. Far fewer servant girls' letters survive in trunks in attics than do those of their masters, don't you think?
PS My presentation.
Kelly (not verified)
Thu, 02/05/2009 - 10:40am
Thanks for writing up this
Thanks for writing up this conference. I think I saw the announcement a few weeks before the event and was a little surprised that none of the panelists were from any of the big women's history archives. Not that we're the only people qualified to talk about these things, but I think we (any women's history archivists) maybe should have been part of the conversation. Not even LHA? They are right there in town!
Emily (not verified)
Thu, 02/05/2009 - 11:28am
Thanks for writing this up,
Thanks for writing this up, Jenna. You have more wherewithal than I do!
You know what I thought about the conference because we talked about it a little while I was there. I felt very angry that there weren't more practitioners on the bill, like actual trained and working archivists. There was you, and then two guys who run big archives but don't do the day to day decision making of collections processing to really speak to the issues that the historians/theorists were bringing up. Me, I was disappointed. I mean, there are a couple of conversations going on here. There are archivists talking about the archives, and then there are theorists talking about 'the Archives.' Surely these two communities can talk amongst themselves and are under no mandate to talk to each other. But. If you bill an event as a dialogue like I think they did, I do think you have an obligation to a) invite the appropriate parties and b) provide some thoughtful bridges that will enable those folks to talk to each other. You know how I feel about bringing the material and the theoretical into conversation with each other. (If you don't know: I love it!!) It does require some effort, though, and I felt like that effort was advertised but not actually on offer, and as usual it resulted in making the practitioners look like we never think about anything. Which isn't true. That said, I loved the presentation from the woman from differences. Her discussion of the archive/archives etymology was so good and interesting and capable of capturing the dilemma of how to fix the unfixable that it made the day worth it for me.
Thanks for acquitting yourself and the rest of us admirably under what I thought were very suspicious conditions that reeked of the blinders that attach themselves to the elite. Grr. GRR.
Kate (not verified)
Thu, 02/05/2009 - 8:17pm
As Jenna noted in her
As Jenna noted in her report, she was the only "practitioner" to speak, despite the fact that the conference was apparently for scholars and archivists. I also didn't feel that there was any recognition that archivists and librarians are our (academics) collaborators in a larger project of feminist knowledge production. But the event, including some of the tensions, were productive.
At the conference, I was somewhat surprised to discover that for most of the presenters, “archiving women” appeared to have less to do with women archiving their own lives than with women being archived. “Archiving” was not being read as an adjective describing an active subject (women) but rather “women” was being read as an object of an action (archiving). The emphasis, in other words, appeared to be on understanding women as potential subjects rather than central agents of the archive. But these observations crystallized several things I've been thinking and writing about for the past five years or so. For many of the presenters, the archive appeared to be understood as a destination and even achievement. For a younger generation of feminists, the archive has never been a destination, an impenetrable barrier to be breached, but rather it has always been a site and practice integral to our mode of knowledge production and our activism. The archive for many feminists of my generation is precisely where academic and activist feminist work converge. The creation of archives is part and parcel of how we make and legitimize knowledges and make our voices audible in the public sphere. Rather than a destination for knowledges already produced or place to recover histories and ideas placed under erasure, the making of archives if frequently where our knowledge production begins. For many of us the archive is even a site of pleasure and entertainment. It's a strange entanglement of perverse fascination, entertainment, political efficacy and serious intellectual work, and this is very different from an older generation's understanding, experience and approach to the archive, but I'll stop here! More forthcoming in an essay in progress...