No Archive is Neutral: Basements and Attics, Closets and Cyberspace: Explorations in Canadian Women’s Archives

From “Introduction: No Archive is Neutral,” Basements and Attics, Closets and Cyberspace: Explorations in Canadian Women’s Archives (edited by Linda M. Morra and Jessica Schagerl). You can read one of the chapters, by Daphne Marlatt, that we posted earlier this week.  Buy the book. It’s really great.

            Basements and Attics, Closets and Cyberspace is, first and foremost, about researching the archives created by, about, and for Canadian women. This book asks questions about the theories, methodologies, and assumptions at work when we, as researchers, gather information about Canadian women’s lives, whether this research takes place in an institution such as Libraries and Archives Canada, or at a kitchen table with a stack of dated letters. The contributors to this collection examine the negotiations and contradictions involved in ethically dealing with the records of Canadian women’s public and private lives and with the material conditions of women as cultural workers. The essays, therefore, are as much about the processes involved in creating, locating, accessing, using, and interpreting archival materials—even in deciding what constitutes an archive—as they are about the ethical questions generated by such processes.

The collection addresses the real and sometimes peculiar challenges that affect archival work today; the essays therein reflect upon the dilemmas, ethical and otherwise, that arise partly out of shifting understandings of the archival researcher’s role, and partly as a function of the extension of what archives have come to mean to those same researchers. From questions of acquisition, deposition, and preservation, to challenges concerning the interpretation of material, the contributors track how fonds are created (or sidestepped) at various stages in response to political imperatives and feminist commitments; how archival material is organized, restricted, accessed, and interpreted; how alternative and immediate archives might be conceived and approached; and how exchanges might be read when there are peculiar lacunae—missing or fragmented documents, or gaps in communication—that require imaginative leaps on the part of the researcher. […]

Newer technological media and the preservation of material online, like personal recordkeeping, gesture toward writers who work independently and make their own decisions about what is worth preserving even if state institutions may approach that material differently or deem it as lacking in  value. As Devereux, Karis Shearer, and Jessica Schagerl show, the archive thus can encompass what we may refer to as “renegade” electronic caches: those in which material is sometimes haphazardly gathered by individuals using an approach that is less methodological than what an archivist might employ, and therefore certainly unauthorized and ungoverned by the state. Louise Craven notes in What are Archives? that technological changes “have led to a new way of thinking about archives…. The individual and the community, not the organization or the government, are the significant units now” (8). As academic conversations about digital archives show, the process sometimes isolates the material from librarians and archivists who are equipped with practical or theoretical approaches that extend beyond those accessing the digitized form. To be sure, the so-called triumph of the digital archive has its drawbacks, but it opens up possibilities both for those who create archives and those who access them.2 Paul Tiessen reveals in his essay that writers like Sheila and Wilfrid Watson had anticipated—even hoped for—a medium like the blog before it was invented, although they did not anticipate the inherent challenges. Wilfrid, for example, believed that writers “should circulate their work only in unpublished form, thus speaking without the interference of any number of hands. . . . I cd. [sic] envision a day when serious writers everywhere . . . will only circulate their writings in MS.” With the advent of the blog, as Shearer and Schagerl show, writers can indeed “circulate” their writing without concerning themselves with the interventions of publishers, editors, and the like. The instant self-publication offered by the medium of the blog allows women to provide important critical responses—and provides researchers with another archive upon which to draw. These forms resist what Derrida refers to as domiciliation, or house arrest, this “uncommon place, this place of election where law and singularity intersect in privilege” (2–3; emphasis in original). Archives, habitually seen as the purview of the state, may increasingly be set up independently in this manner. One might say that the shift in the ownership of knowledge and the individual agency being exercised through new technological forms moves against the state-instituted and privileged archival grain. […]

The possibility of forgetfulness is heightened when researchers only have fragments with which to work. As T. L. Cowan argues, a problem we face is how to conduct research about a woman’s life, or an event to which she may have contributed, for which we only have a “trace”—the memory of a person present, a bystander’s snapshot, a scrap of paper with an allusion to the said event. To many researchers, these traces might be considered irrelevant or “‘trivial,’ that is, imagined to be without explanatory significance” (Enloe 220), but Cowan argues differently. Making reference to Lorraine Code, Cowan notes that even gossip might be seen as a “valuable and . . . subversive form of knowing/knowledge.” The ethical questions generated by the use of such sources are related to legitimacy and authority: how do we know the difference between respectable scholarship and vulgar, sensationalist pursuits? How do we—and should we—avoid posing as spokespersons for the women about whom we write? When is gossip integral to what needs to be articulated? As the editors of The Intimate Archive suggest, scholars are often compelled to distinguish between “what separates legitimate scholarly intent from plain old voyeurism” (23). This issue is often particularly fraught, and the boundaries are unclear for feminist and queer scholars (see, for instance, Julie Rak and Wendy Pearson). Ethical questions must be generated, however provisionally, to determine what indeed separates legitimate from illegitimate scholarship. […]

When confronted with archives that are limited in scope or by intent, feminist researchers are compelled to think laterally or seek out unconventional sources—eBay, blogs, anecdotes, and other ephemera. Shearer and Schagerl, for instance, put into practice Cowan’s smart observation that “sometimes research is about who your Facebook friends are.” Yet, if practices related to deposition and collection create gaps, so do these newer forms of technology. Email is an unreliable form; for some it is only erratically preserved, as Cowan discusses, but others, like Penn Kemp, are more systematic. Some interactions, as Tiessen notes in his archival research on Sheila Watson, are simply not documented. Others, as Linda M. Morra reveals in her contribution, are worth documenting even if anecdotal in nature, in order to make a larger point about laying bare one’s ethical commitments, even as these are contextually derived. […]

Gaps in what becomes public knowledge are in part created in terms of who and what is seen as “archivable”—that is, the writer or artist whose papers are considered worthy of being retained. As Susan Butlin’s paper reminds us, gaps in the record are also formed by institutions themselves because of their sometimes limited collecting practices. Such biases are the very reason women’s papers were often omitted from the national record, as Working in Women’s Archives so thoroughly addressed. These biases are restaged in detectable omissions in the archival record. Indeed, it can be argued that a process of archival canonization emerges in institutions which not only privileges gender but also genre—certain documents are considered worth preserving over others. So it is that newspaper articles about Florence Carlyle’s popular or commercial production were almost completely omitted from the record at the Archives of the National Gallery; conversely, those articles that addressed her career as a genre painter were retained. The former articles were retained, however, in a local institution that privileged local and regional matters. The institution and its corresponding mandate may work against a researcher’s own objectives; to this end, a researcher is obliged to work imaginatively around or against preserved materials. Katja Thieme’s essay shows that, sometimes, newspapers preserved for different purposes other than formulating women’s history still showcase the kind of work in which women were involved: Beynon was a woman’s page editor for The Grain Grower’s Guide, and as such she was “in a privileged position for fostering a sense of collectivity among Anglo-Canadian women.”

This collection showcases the range of critical debates that animate thinking about women’s archives in Canada. It is not necessarily about historical figures or case studies themselves, although it includes essays that look at specific figures such as Lucy Maud Montgomery, Emily Carr, Sheila Watson, Francis Marion Beynon, and Florence Carlyle. On the one hand, this book answers the call Hobbs makes to grapple with “the flotsam of the individual life” (127). On the other hand, it strikes out into new territory and expands its scope beyond women’s private literature and traditional approaches to consider what is understood as an archive and archival material, that is, to question the nature of archival research itself. It is a collection that suggests new and creative approaches for pursuing an archival path, the result of the contributors’ focus on how a supple research process might allow for greater engagement with unique archival forms or critical absences in the narratives of the past and present.
–Linda M. Morra and Jessica Schagerl

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