Arts and Entertainment | Books

Regenerating Women from Words

What qualifies as a meaningful life? How does one distinguish one life’s worth from another? These questions have countless answers, but one particularly academic solution made its case Friday at Low Library: archiving.

Archiving is a practice that explores the uniqueness of an organization or individual, as well as his or her research value. Last Friday, the Archiving Women conference in Low Library brought to light the lives of women in the shadows—women whose existence, past or present, is worth investigation and documentation.

A number of archivists, published writers, and professors spoke at the conference, including several members of Columbia’s English Department: Farah Jasmine Griffin, Brent Edwards, and Marianne Hirsch. The speakers were organized into three panels: “Feminist Practices in the Archive,” “Creating New Archives and Collections,” and “Collecting and Being Collected.” Although each two-hour segment was intended to address the more technical questions regarding archival practices, the speakers could not help but let their personal motives direct the flow of their words.

“How does an archive change when what was put inside the archive was created for the archive?” began the event’s first speaker, Alice Kessler-Harris. Kessler-Harris went on to speak about her current project, the life of left-wing American playwright Lillian Hellman. Although primary documents from Hellman’s life were archived when she was alive, late in her life Hellman requested that all of her friends send back the letters they had received from her, and subsequently destroyed them. Hellman’s case begs the question: are archives, then, accurate portrayals of an individual? The controversy over self-censorship—the individual’s refusal to share documents—resurfaced in later speeches.

The conference offered a look at other speakers’ research as well. Farah Griffin took the audience through Mary Lou Williams’ career as a jazz pianist, and Annette Gordon-Reed described Sally Hemings’ partial quarantine outside of Paris. Barnard librarian Jenna Freedman disclosed the fact that “zines”—small circulations of texts or images—can be copyright-violating, unedited, primary documents that reveal some of the most rudimentary truths about their authors. While the audience’s dutiful note-taking seemed to indicate either involvement in women’s studies or interest in the process of archiving, the personal journeys of these archived women were a very intriguing subject regardless of academic affiliation.

In addition to offering a glimpse of the scholarship surrounding archiving women’s lives today, the conference also explored fundamental questions about the practice of archiving, such as: What kinds of new archives are being created and how are they structured? Are new materials being collected, new histories being shaped? What alternative forms of transmission are being imagined? How have new media transformed the ways in which knowledge is classified, stored, and retrieved?

As Gordon-Reed explained of her current project, “Constructing her from that—from inside out, from her family—is what I’m trying to do.” The practice of archiving women is about just that: putting together the lives of women who wrote and otherwise created works of significance.

Thus, to archive a woman is to extract from history what can be found of her raw self and to place it alongside the work she produced in order to build a more complete image of her life. Certain women have lived extraordinary lives in shadows and under masks of unimportance. The message of the “Archiving Women” conference is that those lives deserve to be discovered and explored by the public.

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