Archives Matter

Drawing upon the contributions of two groundbreaking essay collections, Working in Women’s Archives: Researching Women’s Private Literature and Archival Documents (Buss and Kadar 2001) and ReCalling Early Canada: Reading the Political in Literary and Cultural Production (Blair et al. 2005), to archival and Canadian studies and feminist scholarship, Basements and Attics, Closets and Cyberspace revisits the creation of and research conducted in Canadian women’s archives. This scholarly collection of essays includes contributions from various cultural agents—writers, archivists and researchers—involved in the creation and institutionalization of archives, thus highlighting the complex processes of depositing, retrieving, evaluating, and investigating different types of archives available in Canada.

Organized according to “three axes of understanding,” namely “Reorientations,” “Restrictions,” and “Responsibilities” associated with personal, literary or institutional archives, Basements and Attics theorizes archives as non-neutral sites, and articulates archival work as open to critical interpretations and methodologies. The interrelations established between these three parts emphasize the research potential of Canadian women’s archives, agencies and ideologies, methodologies, and practical aspects at work in special collections. By examining archival and research practices, most articles primarily discuss how archival materials are organized, accessed, valued (culturally, economically or individually), and interpreted. They also address how writers, archivists, and researchers can deal with gaps, multiple identities and complex discourses encountered in both print and alternative archives, and investigate how previous readings of archives can (mis)construct authors’ professional career or communities’ cultural status. Therefore, each section explores alternative research by highlighting the resourcefulness of publishers’ archives, private collections, or digital repositories. The contributions included in “Reorientations” and “Responsibilities,” for instance, constitute excellent “how-to” guides for researchers interested not only in how archives problematize (dis)location, representation, and cultural translation, but also in ethical (re)readings of an author’s literary career.

In “Reorientations,” several essays engage with writers’ and scholars’ experiences of working either in or with archives. Daphne Marlatt discusses how fonds contribute to community formation, and touches upon how donors need to address privacy issues when depositing papers in official institutional archives. Cecily Devereux analyzes eBay as a non-conventional or alternative archive which operates “according to principles similar to institutional archives,” thus reproducing representations of the “Indian maiden” according to a white colonial economy. Karis Shearer and Jessica Schagerl, in their study of Sina Queyras’ blog Lemon Hound, advocate for this digital form “to be accepted as a legitimate archive of the times,” and emphasize the potential of non-print archival materials. Catherine Bates argues that two short stories by Alice Munro and Marian Engel encourage readers “to make connections between the archive and waste.” Hannah McGregor problematizes Nelofer Pazira’s artistic archive as a site of information which complies with Canadian discourses that legitimize the “War on Terror.” Similarly to other writers’ contributions included in this collection, Penn Kemp’s essay reflects upon the cultural and economic values traditionally conferred to handwritten or typed materials versus digital documents to be included in special collections, and discusses the process of transferring a writer’s papers from a private to a public space.

These issues of what types of “materials” and whose artistic production are valued, how “materials” are catalogued and to whom they are made accessible are further explored in both “Restrictions” and “Responsibilities.” Most studies included in these two sections deal with the complexities of creating, depositing and cataloguing an archive. “Restrictions” and “Responsibilities” discuss negotiations and contradictions involved in ethical readings of archives—even when the author refuses to deposit Canadian women’s archives in a specific site—and highlight problems to be encountered on accessing, using, and interpreting Canadian women’s archives, as showcased by Ruth Panofsky and Michael Moir’s examination of how restrictions placed in literary archives determine alternative research paths and methodologies. In exploring how national archives construct Florence Carlyle’s cultural production, Susan Butlin’s essay points out an institutional disregard of popular commercial culture and illustrates how special collections prioritize the creative process versus economic aspects, a particular genre, or gender. In her study of Telling It as an oral research site, Andrea Beverley concludes that “particular complicated silences” enable “both the possibilities and vulnerabilities of cross-cultural feminist dialogue.” In the third section, “Responsibilities,” the contributors demonstrate that different types of archives also determine alternative forms of reading (in) archives. By discussing how Alzheimer’s disease leads to gaps in her mother’s personal correspondence, Kathleen Venema’s essay emphasizes how memory significantly functions in the creation and reading of an archive. In their individual chapters, Sally Clark, Julia Creet, Catherine Hobbs, Karina Vernon, and Susan McMaster demonstrate that “even a decision not to deposit papers with a particular institution or an institution’s refusal of papers becomes a comment in itself” which implicitly reflects associations, values and priorities.

Basements and Attics, Closets and Cyberspace therefore serves as an essential guide in defining what constitutes an archive—as an ideologically and culturally constructed site—and in addressing pertinent challenges encountered both in the creation and study of Canadian women’s archives, and also those presented by the advent of new technologies. However, more essays could have engaged with how the increasing lack of financial support will impact upon extant and future archives. In addition, the book ignores how archives can be fragmented beyond national borders. Although Ruth Panofsky and Michael Moir, in their study of archival restrictions, and the co-edited collection itself allude not only to an international community of scholars interested in literary archives deposited in Canada, but also to “globalizing trends that invite reconsideration about archives in national terms,” Basements and Attics, Closets and Cyberspace mainly includes contributions from Canadian scholars and archivists, and explores archives located in Canada. Whereas the collection explores diverse methodologies, the case-study structure could have allowed additional space to discuss how Canadian women’s archives might appeal to large communities of scholars (especially outside a non-Anglophone community) and to analyze transnational relations (particularly in the case of publishers’ archives) which might be established, for instance, in the construction and reading of archives.

This review “Archives Matter” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 181-83.

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