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May 15, 2013

Basements and Attics, Closets and Cyberspace: Explorations in Canadian Women’s Archives by Morra & Schagerl

basements attics closets and cyberspaceI am one of those readers who has bought into the romanticism of libraries and archives, Barbara Pym heroines and Maud Bailey in Possession. In 2001, I helped to unpack the Woolf Collection at the Pratt Library in its new sub-basement home, and it was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever done. And even when it’s not romantic, archives are fascinating; one of my favourite books of recent years was Outside the Box by Maria Meindl about legacy of her grandmother’s archive, and unexpected questions: what do you do with a pile of papers covered on dust and cat hair, a colostomy bag stuck to the back? A question that probably wouldn’t faze most archival librarians, as Meindl discovers, and Susan McMaster too in her essay “Rat in the Box: Thoughts on Archiving My Stuff” from Basements and Attics, Closets and Cyberspace: Exploration in Canadian Women’s Archives (Linda M. Morra and Jessica Schagerl, eds). Her essay begins with a literary archivist asking for details, “Mouse turds or rat turds? A few mouse turds are nothing, they can be brushed off…”

The connections between the essays in Basements and Attics, Closets and Cyberspace are broad and strange, as befitting a book of “explorations”. Why “Women’s Archives” in particular? Because it’s a whole different game that requires in some cases a redefinition of what archives are. One can’t go looking in ordinary places for women’s history, because for so long there was no such thing, and different ethical questions are raised about public and personal stories. But what does it mean for the archive to change the definition of archive? What is expanded and what is undermined? The book is a fascinating exploration indeed, and while it’s published by an academic press and makes a fair number of references to Derrida, much of it was accessible to the likes of me, and was a really enjoyable read.

In “Of Mini-Ships and Archives”, Daphne Marlatt writes of language itself as an archive, and asks, “Does writing… inherently contain the possibility of going public?” based on her experiences in archives using personal stories to provide context for larger issues. Cecily Devereau posits eBay as an archive, discussing its advantages and limitations over tradition archives in the quest for “Indian Maiden” lore. “Faster Than a Speeding Thought” by Karis Schearer and Jessica Schagerl was of particular interest to me, examining poet Sina Queyras’ blog Lemon Hound, the blog as archive and ethical implications of this (there is no permanence; who do comments belong to?; can there be such a thing as a paperless archive?) and poses interesting questions about blogs in general: “Although, on the one hand, controlling the means of publication can be a powerful tool for shaping the literary field, on the other hand, it does have its own implications for women’s labour.” In “Archiving the Repertoire of Feminist Cabaret in Canada”, T.L. Cowan attempts to use anecdotes to recreate an event whose ephemera has been entirely lost, and discusses what kind of archive emerges from this exercise. Penn Kemp writes about archives from the point of view of the archivee, as does Sally Clark who discusses her own discomfort with archiving and the question it requires of her: “What are you worth?”

In “Keeping the Archive Door Open: Writing About Florence Carlyle”, Susan Butlin presents some of the unique challenges of researching Canadian women’s history, and the role of her own prejudices in the process (as she discovers the more commercial ventures of the artist Carlyle). Ruth Panofsky and Michael Moir’s “Halted by the Archive: The Impact of Excessive Archival Restrictions on Scholars” tells of Panofsky’s experiences with Adele Wiseman’s archives when Wiseman’s daughter suddenly made her mother’s archives inaccessible to scholars. The limits of traditional archives are further explored in Karina Vernon’s “Invisibility Exhibit: The Limits of Library and Archives Canada’s “Multicultural Mandate”. Katja Thieme uses letters to the Woman’s Page of Grain Grower’s Guide to show how the page function as an archive of rhetoric which underlines our understanding of the Canadian suffrage movement. Vanessa Brown and Benjamin Lefebvre discuss the archive of LM Montgomery and its role in their own work, as well as its inherent gaps and mysteries. Kathleen Venema uses an archive of her own–a collection of letters exchanged between her and her mother decades ago–to create a new archive and explore the limits of her mother’s memory as she becomes more and more afflicted with Alzheimer’s. In “Locking Up Letters”, Julia Creet questions what is she to do with her mother’s letters about her experiences during the Holocaust when the letters are of vast historical import but also recount experiences that her mother spent the rest of her life trying to flee from and hide.

Basements and Attics, Closets and Cyberspace is not a tidy book, but what exploration in an archive (or any one worth exploring) ever would be? Rather than putting away things in boxes, this book throws the boxes open wide, inviting more questions than answers, and demanding a broader point of view.

4 thoughts on “Basements and Attics, Closets and Cyberspace: Explorations in Canadian Women’s Archives by Morra & Schagerl”

  1. theresa says:

    This sounds fascinating. And yes, what archive is ever tidy? Therein lies the mystery and the pleasure.

  2. Linda Morra says:

    Thank you for such a gracious and lovely review –

    Best wishes,
    Linda Morra

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