Women in Archives – some questions…
Last week I was fortunate to be able to attend the conference Women in the Archives: Organizing Knowledge, cosponsored by Brown’s Women Writers Project and the Pembroke Center’s Feminist Theory Archives. This is my favorite kind of archives conference: one that brings together archivists with researchers from a variety of disciplines. It expands the discourse around archives for everyone involved, and it also provides an interesting window on what the people who are using our collections are thinking about.
The program was diverse, and almost every speaker was fascinating, so it’s hard to focus on just one or two presentations. However, a recurring theme for both scholars and archivists was the work that needs to be done to make present those who are absent from the archive, whether they be lesbian activists whose lives make up only a small part of a LGBT collection built and nurtured by men; the female donors behind men’s personal papers in archives; or the wives and secretaries of creators whose role in their work is not described. More – and more transparent – description was presented repeatedly as an antidote to this invisibility. However, I wonder how we can reconcile this demand for more description on the one hand, and the push within the archives profession for less processing and less detailed description on the other?
A related theme emerged over the two days: that of the difficulty of preserving and describing identity, which attendees agreed is shifting and ephemeral, changing over time. It was suggested that, as archivists, our descriptions need to evolve with scholarship. But a question that came up for me in response to this and other comments was: which scholarship?
The archivist for the Feminist Theory Archives, Amy Greer, made a comment after Mary Caldera’s presentation that fewer researchers are approaching her for the papers of individuals, and instead are interested in movements and trends, something that I notice in my own work with scholars. A group of historians sitting near me took issue with this, describing how in fact History as a discipline is increasingly concerned with the lives of individuals. Amy clarified that while she has witnessed this focus on individual lives, researchers are not telling their stories as often through the papers of individuals. What struck me about this exchange was the underlying assumption that historians are our default researchers. In fact, at Fales researchers are made up of a diverse mix of historians, literary scholars, art theorists, documentary filmmakers, gender studies scholars, artists, performance studies scholars, and many others. So to return to my earlier question: if we as archivists choose to adapt our practices to current scholarship, which scholarship do we choose?
Over the course of the conference we addressed many areas of archival practice and research, including digitization, metadata, custodial history, access, teaching, and authorship. But by the end of the two days, what I began to feel was missing was an explicit discussion of selection and appraisal. This was particularly true when we were discussing digital archives, where the primary problems most people identified were description and access. As so often in discussions about digital archives, I found myself wondering, What about the vast majority of archival materials in our collections that are not digitized, and to be honest likely never will be? While we debate about the need for more, and more complex, description of the already-digitized, and as resources are redirected to these projects and away from basic processing, don’t the majority of the materials under our care risk becoming less and less accessible? And if so, in the context of a culture where – increasingly – if it’s not online it effectively doesn’t exist, doesn’t the selection of materials for digitization become the most powerful point of intervention in the quest to make sure previously absent voices are heard?
The idea of seduction came up a few times over the course of the conference: some attendees were seduced by the virtual world of data visualizations, while others (myself included) are still enamored with the messy, tangible world of archival documents and objects. But the idea arose in the context of the need for researchers and archivists to establish dialogues with each other as well. As archivist Angela Todd of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation said while talking about the challenges of locating archival materials in a world of limited description: “We have to sort of seduce each other to work together.” Conferences like this, which bring together archivists and scholars from a myriad of fields, are one way to address the question which scholarship? It seems to me the answer must always be: Many.
Senior Archivist, Fales Library