As I pointed out last week, our understanding of the past is based in large part on what is, or all too often in the case of the records of women’s lives and work, what isn’t preserved and that what those who come after us will know of our lives will be based on the records that we leave. The following interview with Laura Micham, Director of the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture at Duke University explores the role that archiving plays in preserving our own stories.
Q: Laura, as you and I have discussed before, when it comes to history, not only is it important to understand our past, but also to preserve records of our own lives. This is a particularly important mandate for women because so much of our story was never recorded or has been lost. Can you explain the role that archives such as the Bingham Center play in preserving women’s history?
A: The Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture describes its mission this way: “We are charged with acquiring, preserving, describing, and making available, to a broad population of users, published and unpublished materials that reflect the public and private lives of women, past and present.” In other words we receive or proactively seek out materials by, for, and about women, from centuries-old letters and diaries to current zines and blogs, carefully preserve and describe the artifactual, informational, and evidential dimensions of these materials, and connect them to students, scholars, artists, activists, and other researchers through our website, reference desk, classrooms, exhibit cases, and public programming spaces.
Q: Your collection includes a wide variety of work. Are there particular areas of interest that you try to focus on? Can you share with us some of the highlights of your collection?
A: While the Bingham Center is a broad-based women’s archives and library with materials in almost every conceivable format created over five centuries, our particular areas of focus include the history of feminist theory and activism, women’s sexuality and gender expression, girl culture, domestic culture, women authors and publishers, lay and ordained church women, and women artists. Some of our most sought out collections include our zines, lesbian pulp fiction, artists’ books, Civil War Women’s papers, and reproductive rights collections. This last category includes not only the papers of activists but also those of abortion providers and the clinics they have established along with an extensive collection of rare print materials from across the political continuum. This is a particularly rare and unusual body of material.
Q: When you and I first started talking, you were horrified at some of the things that I had tossed out over the years and now that I think about it, I can see historic value in things that I once thought of as trash. Tell us about some of the things that you find to be of particular archival value and perhaps you can also give us some thoughts about how to determine what things we should consider preserving.
A: We certainly understand that people can rarely save every bit of documentation they create or amass. What we hope is that they will save materials that reveal something about the times in which they lived, struggles or debates in which they participated, and/or some version of the products of their chosen work. These can take many forms but generally include correspondence with family, friends, and colleagues; records generated by groups or organizations they formed and/or lead; writings, published and unpublished, private (e.g. diaries or journals) and public (e.g. articles, speeches, blogs, etc.); research or subject files (materials amassed around topics of interest); project files (anything from travel documents to organizing documents, meeting notes, sketches, lists, plans, recordings, etc.), ephemera (a fancy word for t-shirts, buttons, posters, fliers, and other items containing information about a movement, event, project etc.); and photographs, hopefully with some explanation of people, places, and activities depicted!
Q: I know that the Bingham Center is relatively new, but are there ways in which the work that you are archiving has already impacted our understanding of women’s history and achievements?
A: The Bingham Center will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2013, just around the corner! We are young but I think we’ve accomplished a lot. Two truly noteworthy areas of strength within the Bingham Center are our commitment to creatively documenting the most recent iterations of the women’s movement as well as the long history of abortion and reproductive rights through our collections of almost 5000 zines by girls and women, artists’ books by working artists that focus on feminist topics including reproductive health, history of sexuality and women’s health materials spanning several centuries, and, as mentioned before, a growing body of materials documenting comprehensive health care clinics for women and the people who establish and run them. Through these collections readers can gain critical perspectives on some of the most thought-provoking and divisive issues in our history and current public conversation. Our founding director, Ginny Daley, used to say that we should inform our activism –and any other work we do- with an historical perspective. This continues to be one of our guiding principles.
Q: Are there any other thoughts you would like to share about preserving women’s history?
A: Preserving women’s history is a singular privilege and a sometimes daunting responsibility which brings us into contact with our heroes, long-term and new, famous and little known, revered and misunderstood. These amazing women whose lives and work we are charged to document challenge us, guide us, and remind us all the time of how fortunate we are to live in the world they created.
Thank you and Happy Women’s History Month!