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Margaret Bingham Stillwell, Women Archivists, and the Problem of Archival Inclusivity

“I had a succession of Trustees who treated me vaguely but graciously in a Victorian way, even though they could not understand how it happened that a woman could be interested in books.” (MBS LAH xii)

Margaret Bingham Stillwell (1887-1984) began her career at the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, Rhode Island when she was still a student at Pembroke College (now part of Brown University). Her prominent father and the JCB’s eminent Librarian had discussed her prospects and set her up for the experience; this was surely the last time two men engineered her life and work so thoroughly. Forging her own path with tenacity, Stillwell went on to lead another Brown library focused on incunabula and medieval and early modern art and artifacts (the Annmary Brown Memorial Library) and to be the first woman full professor at Brown (in Bibliography).

Stillwell’s long life and prolific work–and her frank assessment of both–struck a chord with us, the first woman directors of our respective libraries at Brown University (Karin at the John Carter Brown LibraryAmanda at the John Hay Library). We bonded over our mutual admiration for the acerbic and vivacious Stillwell. She pulled up a chair at the very male table of rare books and librarianship – a table with sharp edges that has routinely left bruises on generations of women and people of color. A pioneer, she left a significant imprint on our libraries. And she thought deeply both about individual books as well as how books can grow into meaningful collections.[1] Our conversations about Margaret Stillwell also contributed to our sense of urgency about generous and necessary interdisciplinary and cross-institutional collaboration, especially for addressing exclusions and silences inherent to libraries and collections.

Through Stillwell, we have talked about the practical work of archives and libraries and also the intellectual and theoretical framework for their development and practice. What has astonished and concerned us is how often two exciting and essential, fully sympathetic literatures about the practice of archive-making and their use have remained parallel rather than symbiotic and mutually informed. In the wry dedication to her autobiography, Stillwell harkens “with affection and amusement to my many friends in the rare book world and a handful of subtle enemies.” While we choose to interpret generously the professional dissonance that we observe, we worry about a heightened discourse of “subtle enemies” rather than engaged collaborators. In the spirit of the latter, even while we recognize the fractious and tender dynamics that may have produced the former, we offer a starting point.

We begin with the necessity to put into explicit conversation the scholarship of archivists working in the critical archives studies mode and scholars engaged with what has been called the “archival turn.” Twenty years ago, Dr. Terry Cook was one of the first to offer an alternative to the waning but still tenacious notion of archival neutrality. He published essays that would permanently reshape the archival literature: “Archival Science and Postmodernism: New Formulations for Old Concepts” and “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” By introducing a fresh theoretical framework, he ushered in a newly expansive era for archivists.

By the early 2010s, another formative wave of archival scholarship emerged — the social justice turn. In Archives and Justice Verne Harris of the Nelson Mandela foundation urged archivists to “heed the call of justice,” to “refuse insularity and to embrace archival hospitality.” The long list of influential work that urged the field to embrace its influence with a purposeful, justice-driven agenda and firmly placed archivists in the U.S. in a global conversation includes scholarship by David WallaceMichelle Caswell, and Joel Blanco-Rivera. Spreading as a restorative burn through the profession, this work paved the way for subfields such as community archives, collective memory, and human rights archives urging archivists to engage thoughtfully and respectfully with living communities. Critical archival theory intersects with the ethics of care, memory studies, indigeneity, liberation, and a reckoning with racism and colonialism. The latter in particular represents a stark departure from the field’s origins in which archival record-keeping was regularly an arm of colonial and state power. What had seemed radical only a decade ago is now a foundation that continues to be examined, renamed, and excavated.

Read entire article at Nursing Clio