Monthly Archives: July 2012

Review: Make Your Own History: Documenting Feminist and Queer Activism in the 21st Century

Make Your Own History: Documenting Feminist and Queer Activism in the 21st Century
Edited by Lyz Bly and Kelly Wooten
Litwin Books 2012


Volumes from the library and archives world that set out to discuss the documentation of traditionally un- or under-documented communities tend to fall into one or more of the following traps:

  1. Creating a straw-man version of “traditional” archives –  against which the archive project in question (feminist, queer, racial/ethical minority, activist, etc.) is compared favorably
  2. Uncritically claiming “archiving is activism” – without asking whether that means all archivists are activists
  3. Having authors write about projects with which they are not involved – as though those involved cannot speak for themselves
  4. Failing to offer any helpful advice for similar projects in the future – either from too much emphasis on theory, or simple generalizations.

Make Your Own History falls into all of these traps at least once.

This is not surprising, and much of this can be explained, and forgiven, by considering the difficulty involved in putting these volumes together. I hope that as the literature of activist collecting grows, these pitfalls will become increasingly less common.

What is surprising, however, is how out of sync the title of this book often seems from the content of the essays. For a book on the topic of documenting feminism, queer activism and the corresponding DIY ethic, it is surprisingly conservative. Whatever one might think when one hears the phrase “make your own history” most of the authors seem to mean something akin to “give your material to an established archive”.  The volume would have benefited greatly by including essays by people working in community archives. The absence of these voices gives the distinct impression that non university-based collections do not deserve serious considerations.

The failure of Make Your Own History to take seriously alternative opportunities to collect and preserve feminist and queer history is exemplified in the following example:

Kathleen Hanna,  a central figure in the history of riot girrrl and promoter of a strong DIY ethic, is quoted as saying: “Universities have more money than most left political groups and personally I don’t want lefty feminist groups spending their resources maintaining archives when they could be doing more important things” (p. 32).  This is said by way of justifying the gift of her papers to NYU’s Fales Library. This statement is uncritically accepted by author. Preservation is an over-riding concern for donors, the author of the essay claims — and the assumption is that only established archives are up to this challenge.

Angela DiVeglia gives more credit to LGBT community archives in her essay  “Accessibility, Accountability, and Activism: Models for LGBT Archives,” but still speaks from the point of view of established institutions. By way of investigating how established archives can better represent the LGBT community, she asks “What models can community archives offer, and what are the opportunities for cooperative relationships between formal and community archives?” (pp. 70-71). It’s refreshing to hear community archives taken seriously, but it’s disappointing that the investigation is from the point of view of “formal archives” — as though community archives are a curiosity to be studied and used as a resource. DiVeglia’s essay is impressive for it’s concern for reaching out to the community, I only wish it was from the outside looking in.

I feel similarly about an interview with Milo Miller from the Queer Archives Zine Project (QZAP), found in Jenna Brager and Jamie Sailor’s “Archiving the Underground”. QZAP is a project to scan zines and put them online to increase accessibility. This interview is certainly worth reading, and we’re lucky to have it reprinted here. We would have been luckier, I think, to have had an account of QZAP directly from Miller, or someone else involved in the project. Instead, the interview is a copy of zine pages where the interview was first published. It is disappointing to have the most interesting project treated within the wider scope of an essay concerning other matters.

Even within the restricted world of formal university-associated libraries, there is not much that has to do with making your own history. Many of the accounts of library collections that include feminist and/or queer history are simply short histories of how these collections came to be in the library. I fail to  understand how this helps anyone who is wants to make their own history.

Despite these shortcomings, a hand-full of essays  deserve recognition for moving the discussion of community documentation forward. The two essays under the header “Electronic Records” — Erin O’Meara’s “Perfecting the New Wave of Collecting,” and “No Documents, No History: Traditional Genres New Formats” by Amy Benson and Kathryn Jacob — deserve applause for offering concrete examples of documenting electronic records. O’Meara outlines specific steps taken at the University or Oregon’s Special Collections, including pre-custodial intervention (PCI), collecting strategies and working with groups of interest to establish a “digital archivist” in the field to facilitate transfer of electronic records as they are produced. Benson and Jacob report on projects at Harvard to capture, describe and present blogs and Websites. Descriptions of the system to capture, store, describe and promote the material is balanced with examples of outreach and debates about what to capture. This essay does a great job of offering an overview of the challenges and opportunities of collecting electronic records for the Women’s Archive.

Elizabeth Myers’ essay “The Jugging Act: Cooperative Collecting and Archival Allies” also deserves special recognition, I think. She offers a good deal of lessons learned in her role as head of the Women and Leadership Archives at Loyola Chicago. In addition to discussing important issues of relevancy, she recounts the example of community projects that brought in a great deal of attention and material, and warns of pitfalls that she encountered.

Alana Kumbier closes her impressive essay — “Inventing History: The Watermelon Women and Archive Activism” — by acknowledging what should have been stated at the beginning of Make Your Own History: “archives and counter-archives offer different kinds of sources and reminds us sources from different archives support distinct bodies of knowledge and hold multiple kinds of value (historic, sentimental, evidential) for researchers” (p. 102). There is more to document than can fit in university-related archives. And different bodies of knowledge benefit from different types of archives.

Make Your Own History has it’s ups and downs, and it’s biggest problem is the failure to treat community archives as serious alternatives to university-based collections. At it’s best, however, the volume offers insights into the challenging world of community collecting. As the literature on this difficult subject matures, it is my hope that the best continues to outnumber the others. This volume can rightfully take its place as a stepping stone along that path.

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Paschild’s “Community archives and the Limitations of Identity”

When one starts an archives, or even starts to read the literature on the topic, one finds the need to suffer through a lot of postmodern theory. Issues of subjectivity, identity, questions of power relations, and claims to “deconstructing” this and that appear on almost every page.

This blog has attempted a more pragmatic approach to the craft of community archives, and for a long time it’s been a lonely place to be.

But there is hope! The new edition of American Archivist (No. 75, Spring/Summer 2012) brings something I haven’t seen in a while: An article so good I had to tell someone about it.

Christine N. Paschild, in an article entitled “Community archives and the Limitations of Identity: Considering Discursive Impact on Material Needs,” argues that the postmodern vocabulary habitually used when discussing community archives serves to marginalize these collections, and distracts from the practical and important goal of fulling their mission. And, further, that this is quite ironic, because those who partake in the vocabulary consider themselves proponents of community archives.

She frames her discussion specifically around the Japanese American National Museum, but argues convincingly that her point is easily generalizable to all types community archives.

“The history,” she writes in the conclusion, that community archives collect,

just like the community of its origin, is not inherently separate from, independent  of, or marginal to the broader history of the United States. Nor is it any more or less subjective than the history documented by any other collection in any other archives. This begs the question, then, if the conditional caveat of subjectivity is really necessary for the inclusion of community archives in the landscape of professional theory and practice. And, if a continued focus on identity and subjectivity is imperative to successful archival practice, when will it be applied with equal vigor to all archival endeavors?

By focusing on the subjectivity of archives and issues of identity when — and only when — talking about community archives keeps them at a distance, as though other collections are less subjective, or community archives are somehow different because of their focus.

Paschild’s article is a breath of fresh air in a field often chocked by needless jargon and ill-defined theory.

Want to show you take community archives seriously? Start an archives!

(And in the meantime, check out Paschild’s article, we’re lucky to have it.)

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Archivists Without Borders U.S. Call for Comments

A lot of work is being done by a group of archivists to form a U.S. chapter of Archivists without Borders.

If you haven’t yet, take a minute to read up on the project, and make any comments and/or suggestions you might have (specifically on Phase 1 and 2, and finances).

This could be a great opportunity for archivists around the country to get involved with important projects and make a real difference. We all believe archives are indispensable, a U.S. chapter of AwB can be our chance to prove it.

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Talking — but mostly listening — about your archives

The ability to succinctly describe your archives cannot be overrated. The ability to reach out to other people — potential researchers, fellow archivists, community members — is often the only way to keep nascent collections going.

However important it is to talk about your archives — to distill months of work and hours of thoughts into a few short sentences — it is more important to be able to listen.

Listening about your archives involves hearing what researchers would like changed, what donors would like promised and  what colleagues think you might be doing wrong — all of this is hard, and all of this is important. Of all the traps that new collections can fall into, self-isolation is one of the worst.

To stave off this isolation, seek out other people who are working on new collections. Ask them what they are doing, how they are doing it and why they are doing it that way. Be prepared to answer the same questions about your archives. Often it is by listening to questions that we learn to talk about our own projects.

There is much to be said about deciding on a track — policies, procedures, etc. — and sticking to it, but there is always more to learn. The ultimate goal of starting an archives is not to do everything perfectly the first time, but to ensure the material safety and usability of material for future generations.