Christianne F. Collantes
“Teaching Gender with Libraries and Archives” (Edited by Sara de Jong and Sanne Koevoets)
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As a former student of Women and Gender Studies (now embarking on the doctoral path and transitioning into becoming an educator of the said field), I recall the thoughtful questions—all yet without satisfying responses—that were asked persistently in classroom tutorials: “do our debates even reach real women?”; “are we actually including everyone in our dialogue?”. The dilemma of seeking out the invisible voices and ensuring inclusion and visibility is one that the Gender Studies community is still concerned with today. Curiously, as both educators and students, we have tended to overlook the very political and gendered aspects of knowledge transfer and information dissemination that is at the core of how feminists in academic communities even begin to do research and create dialogue about women, for women.
Sara de Jong and Sanne Koevoets’ edited volume “Teaching Gender with Libraries and Archives” (2014) addresses what they refer to as a “curious paradox”—the problem of how the very individuals who manage and are responsible for the archives and information that we rely on are working in the obscured spaces of our libraries. Thus, they have “remained largely invisible themselves” (1). More than neutral, material products of research, the libraries and archives in which we rely upon are “memory institutions” (4) that have been organized and built within patriarchal frameworks. This has prompted the authors to ask: What types of information have been historically marginalized, omitted, and muted from our histories?
De Jong and Koevoets urge us then, to reconsider our own roles as teachers, learners, and advocates of Gender Studies by mediating on both how our archives have traditionally been organized in ways that have excluded women’s experiences, and also their potential to strengthen our varied, collective knowledge about women’s histories, lives, and achievements. The real value of this volume is its application of feminist and cultural theories to real world applications of archiving and librarianship. The text offers exhaustive theoretical discussions on the concerns of knowledge dissemination and organization, then provides tangible, historical, and even contemporary case studies that demonstrate how these concerns manifest themselves in our libraries. Divided into three sections, De Jong and Koevoets’ volume cohesively lays out a readable and well arranged investigation of the systems of discourse and archiving that have been crucial towards (and reflective of) our understanding of gender and women’s histories.
Sara de Jong and Saskia Wieringa’s introductory chapter in the volume’s first section (“Histories/Legacies”)—through a historical account of the International Archives for the Women’s Movement (IAV) in Amsterdam—delineate shifts in feminist paradigms (from positivist to empiricist, for example) that in turn shaped the IAV’s operations and objectives. Questions about new ways to collect material for the IAV emerged just as women’s perspectives (especially women of colour, migrant women, and of other marginalised groups) became a focal point for feminists during the second-wave of the women’s movement in the West. They lead to new methods of obtaining materials for the archive (such as oral histories) in attempt to assuage the ways in which women’s voices were traditionally and systemically left out of the collections.
Postmodern and poststructuralist feminist discourse—alongside technology and the digitization of libraries—have therefore created a recent set of debates about the roles of librarians, library spaces, and even readership. No longer just physical enclaves of information and knowledge (guarded and managed by library personnel), the overwhelming capabilities of the internet and the digitization of archives have reconfigured old, formal systems of librarian/readership where those accessing the resources are now even the producers and contributors to these online archives.
But the poststructural/digitized age has also been beneficial to Women and Gender Studies resources and compilations. The second section entitled, “Practices” looks more closely at how these technological transformations can further empower women’s groups and improve accessibility to gendered experiences to the public, civic society, and even in classroom spaces. The European Commission funded FRAGEN database is a focal point in the section and is a concrete example of how a feminist archive can operate in this globalized age. As an open-access database that holds digitized feminist texts from women’s organizations from 27 European Union countries, authors de Jong, Gé Meulmeester and Tilly Vriend examine the database’s value as both a resource collection and as an “interesting object of study” (76). As both a tool and a product of the postmodern/poststructural/digitized age, the FRAGEN database project is an achievement for feminist activists, scholars, and information specialists and can “help to prepare students to become the next generation of feminist authors” (85).
Caroline Claeys’ chapter, “Information as a tool for the empowerment of women” examines the Women’s Foundation for the Mediterranean’s virtual documentation center FEMdoc, as an effective example of feminist dissemination of online information between gender activists in the Euro-Mediterranean region. What may be more absorbing to the texts’ audience of next generations of Gender Studies scholars, is Claey’s discussion of the key role of social media in the ‘Arab Spring’ and how it mobilised and showcased the political voices of Arab women during these prominent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, information dissemination in our contemporary age has the ability to connect our political subjectivities and create profound societal change.
The last section (“Utopias”) is a meditation—to put it broadly—on the “new possibilities…for experimenting with feminist ways of relating to and within these knowledge spaces” (9). Tanita L. Maxwell’s chapter offers a fascinating and thoughtful overview of the Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL). With initiatives such as the Black and Minority Ethnic History Project (which collects oral histories of migrant women and women of colour), and by offering book and film groups sessions to library goers, the GWL innovatively and intuitively finds new ways in engaging audiences (who are readers and narrators) by promoting the library as a social, un-hierarchical space. The GWL even moves beyond the walls of its own library structure by inviting the public to its historical heritage walking tours, where visitations are made to key sites of Scottish women’s history. These initiatives Maxwell states, contribute to enriching the “cultural memories” of Scottish historiography, in which its women have played significant and impactful roles.
Sanne Koevoets’ final chapter in the volume (“Beyond the Bun-Lay: Towards New Feminist Figurations of Librarianship”) delves deeper into our cultural understandings—and often inexplicable fears—of libraries and librarians. She unpacks the discourses that have traditionally surrounded our libraries (e.g. as representative of the ‘uncanny’; as hierarchical spaces of rational knowledge and masculine order) and of the feminized librarians (e.g. as symbolizing the exclusion of women from rational thought), using examples from popular culture as effectual illustrations of each discourse or archetype. But the chapter later provides examples of librarianship that disrupt our ingrained anxieties from libraries, taking us back to the theme of “utopia” as each case study of these new “feminist figurations” once again destabilize the power relations that have caused us to dread and be overwhelmed by our own libraries.
The volume is both reflective and instructive, and will be of most value to instructors of undergraduate students of Women and Gender studies. Several of the chapters include seminar discussion questions and suggested activities for students, thus also making the volume an educational resource worth utilizing in feminist learning spaces but also in the field of information and library studies. As a whole, it engages with feminist theories, activist praxis, and information studies in a way that offers critical insight on the major questions surrounding the reach of women’s voices and stories, and the archives that collect them.
In conclusion, we cannot continue our efforts in disseminating research on gender without acknowledging and de-problematizing how knowledge systems are subject to patriarchal and gendered ideologies. And while the volume is primarily situated in a European context, it by no means asks us to stop there. Rather, the volume can be viewed as a starting point for future dialogues about feminist archives, knowledge, and “cultural memories” in other contexts. How for example, does this text allow us to reflect upon the challenges and possibilities for feminist archiving in the Global South?
Finally, we are left anticipating excitedly about what’s next for our archives, on the future of Women and Gender Studies, and what we ourselves can offer to the growing compilations of our collective experiences.
Christianne F. Collantes is a final year Ph.D Candidate at the Centre for Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Her dissertation is on reproductive health dilemmas and global restructuring in the Philippine context. She is currently a volunteer with the international feminist organization Isis International where she is assisting with a feminist archives project.