Archives as Activism–Documenting Feminist and Queer Activism: Interview with Author Kelly Wooten
How do we best preserve and study the record of lives lived outside and beyond the limits of the conventional? How do we document third wave feminist and queer activists’ work that is taking place in multiple mediums and often without a paper trail or through a specific organization? As someone who researches and teaches about second and third wave feminist movements, I believe these are important questions. Thankfully, Kelly Wooten has been thinking about the thorny challenges and advantages of researching, documenting and archiving contemporary activists in feminist and queer movements.
Kelly Wooten is the Research Services and Collection Development Librarian for the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture in the Special Collections Library, as well as being Librarian for Sexuality Studies for Perkins Library at Duke University. She’s also a graduate of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill where I work. Her new book explores various perspectives on archiving traditional paper-based sources as well as blogs and social media, zines, and other kinds of material artifacts (e.g. tapes, CDs, protest posters, etc.,). I wanted to find out how Kelly approached writing this unique book that creatively brings together activists, archivists, librarians and scholars.
-Tell us about your new co-edited book, Make Your Own History: Documenting Feminist and Queer Activism in the 21st Century. What brought you to writing this book? What do you hope it will accomplish?
I started thinking about this book three years ago in 2009 when Emily Drabinski, the editor for the Litwin Books Series on Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies, emailed me out of the blue and asked if I would be interested in writing a book about zines after being referred to me by Jenna Freedman, the zine librarian at Barnard. My initial reaction was no, thanks, but then I realized this was a great opportunity to further explore some questions I had been asking about how to document the modern feminist movement beyond zines. Once we started exploring this topic, we realized it was hard to address without including pieces about queer activism and second wave feminism due to the intersectionality and fluid nature of feminism. I hope this book will highlight the Bingham Center’s leadership in documenting the modern feminist movement, but also share the other work being done at other institutions and encourage other archivists and activists to participate in this process since these movements are far too big for just a handful of archives to document.
-How did you find your contributors?
I started by recruiting my co-editor, Lyz Bly, a former Mary Lily Travel Grant recipient who had used the Bingham Center’s zine collections in her research for her dissertation, because I wanted a scholarly perspective to balance my librarian viewpoint. We decided to have a selective call for proposals, and ultimately five of the other contributors had direct connections to the Bingham Center including a former intern Angela DiVeglia, two other Mary Lily Travel Grant recipients: Alison Piepmeier and Kate Eicchorn, zine donor Sarah Dyer, and Alexis Gumbs, a Duke alum and frequent Bingham Center collaborator. The other contributors are part of a network of library colleagues, academics and activists that I’ve been privileged to connect with over the past few years and others who got drawn in through these connections.
-How did you get interested in girls’ studies, and zines made by women and girls?
I’ve always identified as feminist and have been interested in empowerment of women and girls, especially through self-expression, at least since college if not earlier. I wrote a zine in high school (I think we made 10 copies total and maybe 3 people read it), so when I found out about the Bingham Center and their acquisition of the Sarah Dyer Zine Collection while I was in library school, I knew I wanted to get involved. I made the zine collection the topic of a term paper, and later my master’s paper, and I was able to conduct a field experience with the Bingham Center (unpaid internship for course credit) that included curating an exhibit and bibliography about their girls’ literature collection, called “Beyond Nancy Drew.” So those topics were my first point of entry and exploration into the collections here, and when I became a staff member in 2006, I was able to capitalize on my experience and interest in those areas. Girls’ Studies has an inherent component of activism beyond just academic research—this requirement of involvement with a community really appeals to me, and I’ve been able to put this into practice through volunteering to teach zine workshops for Girls’ Rock NC summer camps over the past 6 years.
-What did you learn about the writing process that you didn’t know before you started working on your book?
The biggest thing I learned is that it’s probably not any easier to edit a book than to just write one yourself, but working with this diverse community of writers was rewarding and inspiring and I’m really glad to see it finally in print.
-You graduated with a dual major in English Literature and women’s studies from UNC-Chapel Hill. You know one of my favorite topics is hearing how people take their training in women’s studies and use it after graduation. How have you used your training?
My background in English and women’s studies really is the perfect combination for my work here at the Bingham Center. Women’s studies (the faculty, fellow students, and coursework combined) provided me with critical thinking skills, confidence in my ability to lead and make change (which came from a supportive community, not just individual faith in myself), and the tools I needed to be an activist and communicate and engage with the world. Due to my academic background, I am versed in the basics of feminist history and theory, which not only prepared me to engage with our collections of materials created by feminists like Robin Morgan and Kate Millett, but also provided the underpinnings for understanding the whole endeavor of documenting women’s history in general. Thankfully we no longer (or less frequently!) have to answer “Why do women’s stories and documents from women’s everyday lives matter?” but that question is at the heart of the work we do.
-What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?
I have to steal this from something I recently read that Zadie Smith recommended in a talk at the National Book Festival: write at a computer that is not connected to the internet. Of course this is almost impossible, so what really helped me was to set aside a reasonable block of time to focus on this project—just an hour or two at a time. I would take a pen and paper to a coffee shop to write or read essays and edit, or plan a phone date with my co-editor when we could talk uninterrupted by work or kids. It’s not much of a tip, but I had to schedule time for myself to avoid the guilt of avoiding this book! Also- if you are working with a writing partner or editor, or even by yourself if you are working on different computers or devices—Dropbox is a miracle.
Find out more about the book here
Kelly Wooten is the Research Services and Collection Development Librarian for the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture in the Special Collections Library, as well as being Librarian for Sexuality Studies for Perkins Library at Duke University. She provides reference and instruction for women’s studies, sexuality studies, and many other interdisciplinary areas using our rich collections of primary sources and online resources. She also plans a wide variety of public programming to highlight the women’s history collections at the Bingham Center.
Her special interests include book arts, girls’ literature and girls’ studies, contemporary feminist movements, and zines.