Saturday, February 28, 2009

Archiving Women Conference - Columbia University - Friday, 30 January 2009

I twittered throughout this conference and one of the consequences of that is I never came home and wrote up my notes. Now, I want to retire that journal and am typing up everything sitting in my office. So I thought that I would write a short and brief summary of this great conference.

The conference was sponsored by the Center for Critical Analysis of Social Differences which is an organization of five other centers at Columbia University.

Alice Kessler-Harris was the first speaker. She raised a series of important questions about archives. How did this material get here to be examined? Why was this collection important to this particular cataloguer? These were early and important questions to historians working on women. Then archive became a verb which introduced a paradox: how does an archive change when what is put into it is consciously created for an archive? In the process of setting up particular archives for theorists, scholars, activists, do archives set up conditions that undermine the exact intention of the archive? If so, of what use will the archive be to the net generation of historians?

N.B. Kessler-Harris’ current project is a biography of Lillian Hellman which she talked about a bit in this address and it sounds like it will be a fascinating read.

Farah Jasmine Griffin was the next speaker. She spoke about her work “In search of Addie Brown” Griffin’s work has resulted in the collection of letters between Addie and Rebecca that documents the experiences of black women post-reconstruction. Griffin talked about her experiences working with archives as a historian both locations where there are fuller archives and where there are less robust archives.

Annette Gordon Reed spoke about her work with the award-winning The Hemingses of Monticello. In particular Gordon-Reed talked about the need to animate Sally Hemings as a person who lived and worked and moved through space and history. Gordon-Reed told fascinating anecdotes from the archival work that she did including how in the absence of certain materials she was able to find other materials that illuminated different parts of stories.

Jenna Friedman, a librarian, talked about her work at the Barnard Library creating an archive of zines. The archive is searchable at Friedman raised interesting questions as well, including, are there reasons we want to honor keeping things out of the archive? In feminist practice there is a privileging of “breaking the silence,” but she asked, are we honoring things when we honor the conscious silences in the archive?

In the next panel, Michael Ryan, an archivist at Columbia University talked about collection building as a contingent activity of libraries; that is, it is based on what comes in the door. He also talked about the issues of search tools that may orient us in general ways to the archives, but don’t make everything searchable.

Frank Mecklenburg from the Leo Baeck Institute Archives divided archives into this matrix for thinking about what is in an archive:
things seen by researcher/seen by archivist
things not seen by researcher/seen by archivist
things seen by researcher/not seen by archivist
things not seen by researcher/not seen by archivist

Elizabeth Weed spoke on “The Case of Archived Theory.” The Pembroke Center is building an archive of feminist theory. Weed asked, What does it mean to archive theory? Theory is often grounded in critique so that raises the question, what does it mean to archive critique?

The final panel of three included Nancy K. Miller, Nell Irvin Painter, and Elizabeth Povinelli. Miller spoke as a biographer and the frightening thing about becoming, being an archive. She described it as “prolepitc posthumousness.” Painter described her 30 year correspondence with Nellie McKay and what is in the letters and what isn’t in the letters, which are now archived in the Franklin Collection at Duke University, though closed until Painter’s death. Finally, Povinelli described her work with indigenous people in Australia and creating a post-colonial digital archive.

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