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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