Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Documenting the Underdocumented

I sit down to breakfast every morning with my computer in front of me to catch up on the archives news. (That is, I do that when I am not in the middle of a good book, which I am at the moment -- two in fact -- so it was a struggle to tear myself away. I was behind on my news reading though, so it had to be done...) This morning, three news stories in a row focused on women, so it seemed like the universe was telling me something. After chewing that for a couple of minutes, I began to think about my college advisor (about whom I recently wrote when I blogged about diaries) and her focus on women's studies. I was very influenced by her ideas. The realization of a separate women's history was profound after never having considered in my late teens that women could be addressed separately and differently and then having it weaved throughout my curriculum of studies. These considerations have thus influenced my whole career. I always keep the idea in the back of my head that people can be written out of history just because of their "station" in life. I hope that I can put this same idea into every archivist's brain, so that we are always striving to give a well-balanced view of history that goes beyond the cliched "rich, dead, white men."

My three women's news stories today were about Helen Keller, Jane Austen and Riot Grrrl. Helen Keller was famous in her lifetime for her remarkable achievements and though (as I remember it from a recent biography) she died nearly penniless, people valued her memory enough that her personal papers were likely to be valued. Jane Austen on the other hand, according to the article about an exhibition featuring her archives, died unappreciated and unknown. Finally, the late twentieth century feminist rock movement Rebel Grrrl possesses a cult following that is well-known is many circles, but remains unknown to many more.

The fact that so many different types of women are now represented in archives is gratifying, yet I wonder about the many who are not. This morning on BBC radio, I heard a report about Pakistani women subject to acid attacks. (I did tell you that the universe was pointing me in this direction this morning, didn't I?) Are their experiences preserved in a proper archival repository? How many nameless everyday people with stories that are vital to the understanding of humanity are left out of our archives?

Though my post focuses on women, my sex is only representative of many who have been under-represented in the past -- the poor, the homeless, minorities, working-people (such as the miners in West Virginia we've heard so much about this week.) As archivists, we have a professional responsibility to strive to make sure we collect multiple stories from multiple angles. Since the mid-twentieth century, the idea of social history has encouraged researchers to study the "common man." How well are archival repositories keeping up with the need to include diversity among our holdings? How do we make it a priority? How do we make sure its importance is emphasized and runs as a common thread through all the work we do? Whether you are working with paper archives or in a digital environment, your records need to reflect a whole human populace, from those who are very visible to those whose records are a little harder to find to those who have not created written records at all. And though all professional archivists encounter this idea in our training, I am not sure that we all cling to it in our practice. Please prove me wrong.

PS The Helen Keller book mentioned in this article is a wonderful read! It also uses many of Keller's personal papers to illustrate her life, making it more gratifying to a professional archivist

PPS The photo in this post is courtesy of the Albert Ryan II collection, Waltham Public Library, Waltham Massachusetts. A sign pictured in the photo states "Women vote in 29 states. Why not Mass?" Ida Annah Ryan, one of the master minds behind the sign, was active in the suffrage movement and was the first woman to receive a master's in her field from MIT. She went on to become a well-known architect.

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