The Gender of “The Stuff”

In June, I attended the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section Preconference in San Diego, California. It was fantastic few days filled  with informative sessions, an engaging back channel on Twitter, and inspiring face to face conversations.

One such conversation was about “the stuff.” What kind of people should comprise the next generation of special collections librarians? Is it more important to love the “stuff,” or to love sharing the “stuff” with people? Should special collections librarians be teachers or gatekeepers?

For those readers left wondering, “the stuff” refers to manuscripts, rare books, letters, and ephemera. It is at the heart of special collections librarianship, and increasingly, the fuel that feeds digital humanities projects. Often, “the stuff” is what inspires people to work in special collection. Working in special collections is an extraordinary  opportunity to work with the old, the special, and the unique. “The stuff” is amazing. “The stuff” inspired me throughout my undergraduate years at Smith College. I still can’t get over how amazing it was that the Sophia Smith Collection (SSC) was there for me to use carte blanche in my undergraduate library. I used primary materials from the Smith College archives in nearly every research paper I wrote as a history major.  I often joke that those history classes, those amazing hours in the reading room pouring over letters, books, and photographs, set me on the path to ruin that I am on today: libarchivism. I love “the stuff.”

But central in my mind, even as an undergraduate, was the question of access and the politics of collecting. Who gets to access “the stuff,” who gets to use “the stuff,” and who gets to be the arbiter of the memory around “the stuff?” Who decides what of “the stuff” is valuable to collect, keep, and preserve? And so began my now decade long love affair with the politics of history and memory.

During one of my history seminars in my junior year (Trauma and History), we read an article in the American Historical Review by Bonnie G. Smith called, “Gender and the practices of scientific history: the seminar and archival research in the nineteenth century.” In it, she talks about the professionalization of  history during the nineteenth century, a movement that saw historians shift from amateurs to professionals, “training [them] in a distinct methodology, endowing them with expert knowledge, and providing them with credentials.” (Smith, 1153) Not only did this change serve to create professional boundaries, it also happened to be one that largely excluded women. Smith writes, “Seminars and archives were spaces reserved mostly for professional men.” (Smith, 1153).

New York Public Library

Smith contexualizes the historical underpinnings of special collections librarianship as guardianship of “the stuff,” an awesome responsibility viewed as one that only a man could take on effectively. Beyond that, the collecting parameters ensured that material worth saving fit into a narrative appropriate for scientific history, one that suggested an objective truth was out there for someone to find among the documents. As Smith suggests, “young professionals set out for the archives, where they hoped to break up the gates of the documentary  “harem,” save the “fairy princesses” residing therein, and find truth in that process.” (Smith, 1153)

In the nineteenth century, the only truth worth remembering was from the public sphere – the man’s world – as opposed to the women’s world of the home. Women’s higher education in the United States has not had the long, storied history that men’s education has. There were real questions about whether women could physically handle the rigors of education. So, while women undertook the similarly rigorous exams during the 19th century to gain admission to Smith that their male counterparts took to enter Harvard or Yale, they did so with firm boundaries, limitations, and caveats. Inherent in Smith’s physical design is the idea that women could be educated, but also continued to be socialized to remain eligible for marriage. You could learn, but  couldn’t wander too far off your preordained path.

So, was the work of women considered valuable? Did the bright men of the historical profession believe that those “truths” were worth seeking? Until the middle of the twentieth century, no, that was not the case. In the academy, writing women’s history did not happen systematically until the 1970s.

The Library of Congress
Which brings us back to “the stuff” and special collections librarianship. For many generations, the only “stuff ” worth preserving was the evidence of the accomplishments of white men, edifices to their  memory, steering historical narratives to their experiences. Danzy Senna’s Where Did you Sleep Last Night? Where Did You Sleep Last Night? clarifies that trend with remarkable stories and insights. Where are the markers of memory for people of color, for queer people, for the working class? How do text and traditional documentation privilege the white, the heterosexual, the individuals who had the privilege to lead public, open lives? Where are those stories?

The State Library & Archives of Florida

Fortunately, institutions like the Sophia Smith Collection, The Centro Library, The Human Sexuality Collection, and others across the country are working to collect materials about the lives people across genders, sexualities, classes, and races to give researches an opportunity to explore new aspects of history.  But it should not be the exclusive work of a handful of institutions to collect materials from traditionally underrepresented individuals and groups. Special collections librarianship needs to broaden the scope of the “stuff,” its formats, its applications, of who uses the “stuff” and whose “stuff” we can and will collect. I hope that this work won’t be confined to reading rooms and to the monograph, but innovative avenues through the digital humanities and through public engagement to preserve and remember the work and lives of many different types of people, not just the great white men.