Notes on the Digital Humanities and (Canadian) Feminist Archives

alana.cattapan@dal.ca's picture

For the last several years, I’ve been involved in a number of projects that chronicle histories of Canadian feminisms and make them accessible to new audiences online. This work has included, among others, organizing my students to edit and expand the Wikipedia article on “Feminism in Canada” (and writing about the experience here) and contributing to the creation of Rise Up! A Digital Archive of Feminist Activism. These projects come as part of a long history of feminist activist archiving, putting documents and artifacts together to create formal and informal archives. These archives help resist conventional histories that fail to document women’s contributions, ensure that hard-fought battles are not forgotten, and work to help the next generation of activists learn from the ones that came before. Following Kate Eichhorn, “feminist practices of the archive cannot be easily disentangled from the rich histories of community-based organizing”—activism and the archive are often one and the same.

As more feminist activism is archived online, I wonder about the possibilities of the digital archive for the future of feminist activist archiving. That is, what is the role of the digital humanities in the future of the feminist archive?

There is much to be gained by framing online feminist projects as part of the digital humanities. For better or worse, digital humanities has worked to blur the boundaries of who gets to name, create, and define the archive, and what it means to house a collection. For feminist activists who might lack a background in archival science, projects in the digital humanities offer a roadmap, and provide a range of examples about what digitization might look like. Moreover, digital humanities has fought for recognition of these kinds of projects as legitimate sites of knowledge production, and the result has been new potential sources of funding support, and the reframing of volunteer labour as academic work—digital bricks on the road to tenure.

At the same time, I can’t help but think about what might be lost in understanding feminist archives this way. The establishment of digital archives of feminist activism is, in many ways, a continuation of the kind writing and preserving of histories that feminists have long been doing.

But by understanding these archives as digital humanities initiatives (with the university as their institutional home) there may be compromises in content, funding, and governance that limit their potential as sites of resistance. As these histories move to academic institutions—foregoing their place in activists’ basements, women’s centres, and feminist-run, DIY online systems—they may become sources for academic knowledge about activism, rather than potential sites of activism itself.

These concerns are not unique to the online environment. They are true for “brick-and-mortar” archives institutionalized in universities and government-run libraries and archives. At the same time, given the political climate for feminist activism (and general lack of government support), scholarly initiatives—online or not—may be one of the few remaining homes for collecting these histories. In fact, the projects I have been involved in (as well as other Canadian initiatives, such as The Orlando Projectand the LGBTQ Oral History Digital Collaboratory)were largely academic initiatives from the outset, conceived and implemented by scholars in universities.

But maybe it is this entanglement—of activism and academia, of digital archives and digital humanities—that tells us what role the digital humanities will play in the future of the feminist archives. The digital humanities are one of the ways that archives are institutionalized, rendered legible, and expanded to new publics. As feminist archives go online, we must resist through compromise and creativity, ensuring the sustainability of our histories while paying attention to whether the archive has become a site of academic knowledge alone. And while we can address by blurring the lines between scholarship and activism—through activist-focused governance structures for example, or community-university partnerships—it is also naïve to suggest that the university-centered nature of archives that exist within the digital humanities can retain their radical legacy (however romanticized). The role of the digital humanities is, perhaps, to enable these longstanding entanglements and challenges to continue online, creating new, digital spaces for resistance, engagement, and negotiation.