Monday, March 23, 2009

"Women in the Archives," Conference, Brown University, March 2009

This is my first posting here, and I think my submissions might be a bit different than others, as the conferences I attend tend to deal specifically with rare books and humanistic research. Still, here it goes:

I attended a fascinating conference hosted by the Sarah Doyle Women's Center at Brown University earlier this month, the 20th annual meeting of the "Women Writers Project," which focuses on the study and digitization of manuscripts relating to women authors from the Middle Ages to the Modern era. This year's theme was "Women in the Archives," exploring the use of archival materials in the study of women's writing, and the construction of disciplinary practices in archival research and pedagogy. Papers and panels addressed a range of themes:

*pedagogy and interdisciplinary pedagogies
*the construction of archival spaces
*material modes of textuality across disciplines
*technologies of research and teaching, and the impact of digital media on the archive
*new directions in archival research
*editing archival materials

I participated in the conference, both as an attendee, and as a speaker, sitting on a panel to discuss the "Materiality of the Archive," where we explored different themes governing the larger ambit of archival research. I spoke specifically about the "absence" of the female voice in much of the printed literature of the period I study, the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, and the need, oftentimes, to "reconstruct" and "reconstitute" that voice through a range of unconventional manuscript forms. For the earlier periods, that often comes/survives through official records of disorder and hostile witness (i.e., official church and legal documents recording illicit activities such as failure to attend church, harboring banned priests, reading/printing/smuggling illicit books), such as in my own lecture, given the following day at the conference, on religious minorities--in my case, Catholic women in Elizabethan England--and the potential within specific classes of archival materials of the period that can allow us to re-evaluate female activity/participation in persecuted literary cultures.

My own talk focused on Elizabethan Catholic women in three different contexts: (1) through evidence of a Catholic underground book smuggling ring that was run out of one of London's many prisons (where priests were concentrated, and where members of the Catholic laity could pay to have access to them), largely managed by a single woman of the gentry class; (2) through an inventory of a Catholic library maintained by two women in the English countryside in the 1580s, which was discovered in a raid by the Protestant authorities; and (3) through evidence of a small coterie of aristocratic and gentry Catholic women who, in the absence of access to print, patronized a Catholic scribe to copy out in manuscript entire Catholic books, and who also composed other illicit texts of his own, which were then circulated to his circle of readers/patrons.

Larger themes emerged over the course of the conference, in particular: (1) about the preponderance of biographical narratives of the period about women having been almost entirely written/interpreted by male authors and hagiographers, and the implications of that for issues of "authenticity" and the limitations of archival materials; and (2) the gendering of print as a male voice for the "public sphere" and of unpublished manuscripts as a degraded female voice that was only heard within the "private sphere" of the household and family. While I was the only male there (alas, women's studies is still almost entirely still a discipline governed by female contributors), I was fascinated by the discourse and the questions raised, in particular about how/what/why we select from our collections to digitize and make accessible--a field still dominated by print material at the expense of unique and invaluable manuscript source material (a process of selection that is also governed by issues of cost, degrees of specialization, differences in metadata, &c.). Conferences that bring humanists, archivists, curators and librarians such as this really are doing the hard work of breaking down discursive and professional barriers, and I highly recommend next year's session to anyone who finds these sorts of issues, personally and/or professionally meaningful and important.

All best,

Earle Havens
Curator of Rare Books
Department of Special Collections
Sheridan Libraries

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