vol. 24 no. 4, December, 2019

Book Reviews

Rossman, Megan (Director) and Cue, C. (Producer). The archivettes: [a documentary film]. New York, NY: Hunter College, 2019. Available through Vimeo and commercial distribution.

Traditional archival practice has recently come under attack, due to a confluence of factors. First, a critical mass of scholars interested in social and political movements flooded into the academy in the 1970s, eventually reshaping departments to make space for the study of groups long ignored by researchers. Second, the postmodern and post-structural theorization of knowledge production initiated by scholars like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida challenged the very nature of hierarchical archival collection and organization practices, which cemented old hierarchies of power and structured research to favour empowered groups. Last, new digital tools have further undermined the hierarchical classification and organization practices of archives, facilitating relational and topical searches that cut through collections and resist the order imposed by archivists.

This picture still stands, this image of the archive as a stodgy place, full of rules that reinforce hierarchies of power that privilege white, male subjects and their institutions. The Archivettes, a documentary by the director Megan Rossman, upends this picture. The Lesbian Herstory Archives started in 1974 in a New York City apartment. The founders started with a bookshelf made of coffee cans, a small filing cabinet, and a tiny filing card holder, and the collection slowly took over the apartment, growing to a collective, accepting home (new interns are told is to help all visitors unobtrusively and inclusively) that functioned as personal apartment, museum, archive, and library. The collections were moved to their own building in 1988, and the new Lesbian Herstory Archives had its grand opening in 1993. The space still has a couch.

Acceptance and inclusivity are at the heart of this project. As the archive’s established principles outline:

Many of the Archives' principles are a radical departure from conventional archival practices. They are inclusive and non-institutional and reveal the Archives' commitment to living history, to housing the past along with the present (https://www.lesbianherstoryarchives.org/history.html).

This radicalism applies to collection practices; the Lesbian Herstory Archives collect actively, accepting everything to do with lesbians, however they may define themselves, with the goal of inclusive coverage of lesbians and how lesbian identity has changed over time and encompasses the full range of people, as one ‘Archivette’ phrases it in the film. This policy is a reaction to a history of non-acceptance, a time when lesbians ‘tried to find our own histories and could not’ in the words of the Archives co-founder Deborah Edel.

The movie focuses on the personal history of the archive, a history that influenced how the Lesbian Herstory Archives collects and classifies materials. One of the clearest points made is the inseparability of the construction of this archive from the political movements out of which it sprang. Activist women founded the archives amidst struggles over the civil rights movements that led to questioning of archival institutions as upholders of the status quo. As one Archivette asserts, This archive came out of a political movement. We are still in a political movement. This politicisation has shaped numerous aspects of the archives. The institution’s book classification system combines colour-coding with alphabetisation using authors' first names, a homemade system retained as both an artefact of past practices and a rebuke to patriarchal order, as one volunteer puts it. The organization is thus one example of implementation of recent calls to ‘queer’ various aspects of memory institution practice (most recently, a call within the digital humanities; see Ruberg, Royd and Howe, 2018).

The Archivettes illuminate the risks involved in archiving your material if you are from a historically oppressed group and do find a place to house your material. One former archives volunteer Polly Thistlethwaite observes that We were all so eager to combat lesbian invisibility that we took risks with what we recorded, and we took risks with what we left in the archive. Collection practices were also consciously activist; Thistlethwaite describes a willingness to engage in guerilla archival tactics … literally rescuing lesbian history from the trash. This riskiness extends to the archiving process. You can definitely learn the skills of how to sort things and how to preserve things and how to inventory things, but I don’t know if you get that same kind of training for the emotional weight of the materials that you’re going to be working with, as intern Illaria Dana puts it.

Archival theorist Ann Cvetkovich (2003) has written of an 'archive of feelings', a space for the collective processing of historical trauma. This emotional weight is rarely spoken of in relation to archives outside of feminist library and information science. It is certainly present in this film. Deborah Edel notes that I am always aware that nothing is solid. It’s not a given that we’re safe. This is a sense of not-safeness in two senses. The people whose history lives in these archives are not safe from harm – homophobia is alive and well in today’s America. And the archives are not safe from neglect – they require constant training of new volunteers, new generations of people who understand the meaning and weight of lesbian history. In the current funding climate, there are lessons here that are relevant for many smaller archives. Given the political and economic realities of today, this kind of film is important to incorporate into university-level archival and cultural heritage studies, as an introduction to why archives matter to all people, not just to researchers.

One thing postmodernism gives us is the opportunity to extend these concerns to all history, to all archives. Archivists need to think more about the emotional meaning of the archive, its ability to shape how people as individuals and as collectives think about themselves. This is an emotional process, one recounted in accounts of archival research like Arlette Farge’s The allure of the archives (Farge, 2015). Films like The Archivettes demonstrate the concrete, personal nature, not just of movements but what archival materials (a uniting of the individual and the collective in letters, oral histories, mixed tapes, book collections, and other artefacts) mean to people. Part of the postmodern attempt to put historically underrepresented groups at the centre of practice is to place the trauma of these groups at the centre of history: their trauma is societal trauma. The history of Lesbian Herstory Archives is America’s history.


Rachel Pierce

Swedish School of Library and Information Studies
University of Borås
November, 2019

How to cite this review

Pierce, R. (2019). Review of: Rossman, Megan (Director) and Cue, C. (Producer). The Archivettes: [A documentary film]. New York, NY: Hunter College, 2019.Information Research, 24(4), review no. R679 [Retrieved from http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs679.html]

Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.