Archive Survival Guide: Practical and Theoretical Approaches for the Next Century of Women's Studies Research. (Conversations)

By Steadman, Jennifer Bernhardt; Engelhardt, Elizabeth et al. | Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Archive Survival Guide: Practical and Theoretical Approaches for the Next Century of Women's Studies Research. (Conversations)


Steadman, Jennifer Bernhardt, Engelhardt, Elizabeth, Foster, Frances Smith, Micham, Laura, Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers


This essay is the first entry in our new "Conversations" column. We invite readers to continue this conversation, adding their own thoughts, inquiries, and recommendations about archival work, by commenting on the SSAWW listserv. (If you are not subscribed to the listserv, you may do so at: .)

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This inaugural essay for the "Conversations" column is a call to arms, or at least a call to pencils, intended to invite and inspire Women's Studies scholars to join us in the archives. Recovering diverse women's experiences and fully contextualizing their lives and writing is vital work that, for the most part, remains to be done. Feminist scholarship that in the 19705 and 1980s succeeded in putting Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Harriet Jacobs on syllabi across the country must be extended into the next century and the next generation of research. It is imperative that we work against the increasing tendency of many to theorize or teach American women writers and American women s lives as if all data has now been recovered and the existing "canon" of texts, interpretations, and women's traditions and innovations is complete enough. Recent work such as Farah Jasmine Griffin's study of diaries and letters by nineteenth-century working-class African American women, Rosaura Sanchez and Beatrice Pita 's investigations of Mexican American women's testimonios, Northeastern University Press's New England Women's Diaries Project, and various new treatments of first- and second-wave feminist activists' biographies indicates renewed scholarly interest in the long tradition of women's history and suggests exciting interdisciplinary possibilities. However, mistakes and misinterpretations of women's lives and texts are perpetuated without a careful approach to archival methodology, and until more of this work is done we will have inadequate data to form appropriate and complete theories about women's experiences and writings. We continue here a conversation about research methods combining theoretical musings about the value of archival research for the field of Women's Studies and practical advice about navigating manuscript collections. (1) As a preliminary answer to the question "Why does the next century of Women's Studies scholarship require archival research?" we offer a short discussion about the excitement and responsibilities involved, examples from our own work of new approaches and revisions, guidelines for searching and analyzing archive and manuscript holdings, and finally a meditation about the collaborative possibilities for archivists and Women's Studies scholars. (2) While this column focuses specifically on Women's Studies research methods, we hope this conversation will be useful and applicable to scholars pursuing a variety of interdisciplinary projects.

Archival research begins with the thrill of discovery. The same kind of excitement which feminist scholars working in the 1970s and 1980s experienced finding women written out of history still waits for us in reading rooms and stacks. The thrill of going where few have gone and learning what many do not continues to pull us. The spiritual touching of the papers, pincushion, or purse that "she" touched fuels our curiosity and inspires us to decipher cryptic handwriting or navigate another card catalog. We link this moment of revelation to our understanding that unless we intervene she may be forgotten. The process of rewriting history, of identifying so many unknown women and fully realizing the contexts in which they lived, continues to challenge Women's Studies scholars.

So the sobriety of rediscovery balances the thrill. Our giddiness is checked by the recognition that this information has been there all along. Someone--usually lots of someones--knew it then (Fanny Fern and Maria Stewart are good examples), and we who thought we knew did not. …

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