MWWC Symposium “Women in the Archives” Forum

Responses to the MWWC’s 50th Anniversary Symposium on “Women in the Archives” took a variety of forms, from blogs and tweets to more conventional narrative musings.  If you wish us to post a response, simply drop Jennifer a line at jtuttle@une.edu. Thanks to everyone for their contributions!  We look forward to continuing the conversation.  

1. Libby Bischof, University of Southern Maine 
In order to illuminate my presentation on teaching, archives and new media, I set up a twitter page for the MWWC Conference as a prototype and example of what to do with twitter, and how academics and students can use it in our daily work.  I "tweet" as a regular practice (my handle is libmacbis).  Many museums (including the Smithsonian, National Women's Museum, MOMA, Guggenheim, etc.), archives, and libraries tweet pretty regularly now and I thought it would be fun to "tweet" the conference. If you want to check out the page, here's the link: http://twitter.com/MWWCConference.

Libby Bischof Assistant Professor,
History Department
University of Southern Maine
200G Bailey Hall
ebischof@usm.maine.edu
207-780-5219

2.  "Apology for a 'Dribbling' Archivist" Angela Todd, Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation

At the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation I doubt half of our collections are processed with formal finding aids.  An industrious archivist working in the 1970s has written narrative paragraphs describing the first half of our 400 collections, and those and a handful of others might have an alphabetical list of correspondents.  So, when someone comes to research a particular person (let's say botanist and herbal historian Agnes Arber) the first thing I do is consult our 3x5 card file (yes, really) and see if there is a record of either an archival collection in Arber's name or a record of letters from her in someone else's collection.  We do in fact have her research notes and some of her library and other papers here.  But the collection is small and we have very little personal correspondence. But I'd bring out the boxes we have.

Then, looking over the researcher's shoulder, I might note the dates Arber was active and what she worked on and try to think laterally about others who were active at that time or working on a similar subject area and check to see if we had other collections that might include correspondence from her or about her.  Sometimes we get lucky, and I'll find a folder of letters in another collection, or find notes on the back of a photo in our portrait collection. 

If the researcher and I have been in correspondence in advance of a research visit, it helps to be able to percolate that information, and explore some avenues before the person is in front of me (when I might have other writing deadlines or meetings to prep for).  In the very best situations, the work between an archivist and researcher is collaborative and ongoing.  Archives have lots to learn from researchers in terms of what is important to save and what else might be extant in our topic areas. I'm trained as an academic in cultural studies, not an archivist, and for me it was gratifying to see that it's not just that *I* can't reconcile the two.  These really are two very different positions in relation to the materials of history. 

The intellectual work on scrapbooks, particularly of the native families' scrapbooks, served as clear and pointed stories for me to tell the interns that I have from the MLIS/archives program down the street.  I do worry that sometimes we are "saving" the documents of history in such a decontextualized way that their meanings can be changed, and that anecdote helps me make my point to my graduate students.  In terms of "best practices" I think archivists need to listen to historians and researchers about what experiencing historical materials can mean and be.

Thank you, again, for the chance to say this.

Angela Todd Archivist & Research Scholar
Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh, PA  15213
FAX 412-268-5677
Web site: huntbot.andrew.cmu

3.  Patricia Erikson, University of Southern Maine, blogged about her day at the Symposium, commenting on Rose Marasco’s 50th Anniversary Image (the Symposium logo) as well as the presentations on pedagogy by Libby Bischof and Eve Allegra Raimon:
www.heritageinmaine.blogspot.com.

Patricia Pierce Erikson, Ph.D.
American and New England Studies faculty
University of Southern Maine
Portland, Maine
4.  Jennifer Tuttle, University of New England

Here again are my opening remarks from the Symposium, which are meant to complement the questions posed on the Symposium website welcome page; these are followed by a list of favorite phrases I picked up during the weekend.

In 1959, two visionary women at what was then Westbrook Junior College, Grace Dow and Dorothy Healy, established the MWWC to honor, preserve, and make accessible the writing of Maine women.  It is that auspicious event we are celebrating this weekend, and we are honored and grateful that all of you have joined us. 

We chose the topic of “Women in the Archives” because we felt it was important to reflect upon just what it is we’re doing and why it matters.  We wanted to hear from scholars, archivists, and teachers about what this work means to them—not only to showcase what kinds of exciting archivally based work is being done, but also to interrogate the larger context of that work.

By one definition, the archive is a repository through which we preserve a particular version of the past. It is a site for activism—for recovering traces of women’s lives that are otherwise lost to posterity and giving new meaning to those traces.  It is also a site for critical reflection about that process of preservation—what it allows, what it obscures. 

How are women’s lives and work represented there? 
Who is left out or misrepresented?
How can archival sources illuminate the stories we tell about the past, the present, and the future?
How can they teach us to think critically about those stories? 
How can we learn to think differently about archives in order to make more women’s lives visible and to bring new value to their work, whatever form it takes?
And what is the role of archival spaces in the digital age?

Unbeknownst to us, as we brainstormed and planned and began to issue invitations, there were two other institutions doing the same thing in different ways

At Columbia University, the Center for the Critical Analysis of Social Difference was launching “Engendering the Archive,” a three-year interdisciplinary research project focusing on gender, sexuality, race, and archival practices.  They hosted a 1-day conference entitled “Archiving Women” in January.

At Brown University, the Women Writers Project and the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center were developing a conference called . . . “Women in the Archives,” with a focus on early modern women, to celebrate the Women Writers Project’s 20th anniversary.  Their conference was held in March. And now here we are in June, continuing this conversation. 

This confluence of events illustrates what we in this room already know:  that archives are at the center of much of the work scholars are doing today.  Even more so, it shows that we are interrogating what archives mean, what they do, and what our role is or ought to be as archivists, scholars, editors, and teachers.   Many of you in this room have done foundational work in recovering the stuff of women’s lives:  you have long been committed to this project.

We now seem to be in a moment, however, when this topic is particularly compelling, or compelling in new ways.  And this work of recovery is far from complete.  For example, as we develop new, more hemispheric conception of “America,” as we attempt to better understand and make visible the lives of pre-19th century women and women of color, as we attend to oral cultures and other forms of cultural production not usually represented in archives, we will find greater opportunities to document women’s experiences, but we will also have to reconceive how we define and construct archival spaces, and to think critically about how we fill our acid-free folders and archival boxes.

I hope that the presentations over the next few days will help us to be even more self-conscious about what we do. 

* * *
Jennifer’s favorite phrases (for some of these, you simply “had to be there” to grasp why they are so memorable).  And, of course, there were many more.  But these are the ones that made it into my notebook.  Feel free to contribute your own!

“infrastructure of scholarship” (Susan Belasco)
“the silence of the archive/the silence of the sources” (Carla Peterson)
“editorial theory” (Laura Stevens)
“hanging out” (Jean Pfaelzer)
“the archives of memory” (Jean Pfaelzer)
“minding the gap” (Sherrill Redmond)
“reifying the archive” (Laura Wexler, quoted by Jean Pfaelzer)
“photographic predators” (Nicole Tonkovich)
“the aporia of archival lack” (Eve Allegra Raimon)
“the shadow of imagined democracy” (Lois Brown)
“death-defying testimony” (Lois Brown)
“a practice of intellectual and archival optimism” (Lois Brown)

Thanks to each and every one of you for your contributions to the Symposium.

Jennifer S. Tuttle Associate Professor of English and
Dorothy M. Healy Chair in Literature and Health
Faculty Director, Maine Women Writers Collection
University of New England
11 Hills Beach Rd.
Biddeford, ME 04005
207 221-4433
jtuttle@une.edu

See more:

Archives of Interest

Symposium Program 
(includes abstracts)