Book review: The Archival Turn in Feminism

The Archival Turn in Feminism: Outrage in Order
– Kate Eichhorn

How could I not have picked up this book from the anarchist bookshop Fort Van Sjakoo in Amsterdam? It’s about several of my biggest passions: archives, libraries, zines, riot grrrl, and feminism. Can you imagine my excitement when I found it? However, despite the interesting subject matter, the book couldn’t continuously hold my attention and left me with quite a lot of questions…


Eichhorn’s study is based on visits to three collections in university archives/libraries – Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture at Duke University, The Riot Grrrl Collection at New York University, and the Barnard Zine Library – as well as on interviews with its archivists/librarians. These institutions keep some of the most interesting archival materials, DIY publications, and other ephemera from what is called third wave feminism (basicly non-mainstream feminism from the late 80s till the early 2000s, focused more on cultural production than on political activism). I really should visit them one day, especially the Barnard Zine Library is on my list.

It’s so valuable that these collections and the meaning and role of such institutions for (DIY/autonomous) feminist movements and subcultures are being researched. Along with the recent renewed mainstream interest in feminism came the rediscovery of riot grrrl and third wave feminism. This pleases me very much, particularly when the focus is not only on music but also on zines. So I was very excited to read about Eichhorn meeting Jenna Freedman (THE zine librarian, from Barnard college, NY), the Radical Librarians, going through early 90s riot grrrl ephemera, etc in this book.

So yes, I like The Archival Turn in Feminism… But – there is a but, and more than one: there are some things that bothered me a bit. Firstly, because this book is situated within academia, it suffers from what some academic writing can suffer from: theory for the sake of theory (thankfully, Eichhorn’s writing is quite understandable without too much academic jargon and this should be praised). Actually, I can really enjoy reading theory and theoretical research but I get bored by post-modern bla bla. For me the theory has to have some purpose for what is studied and in this book it seemed more like she had to insert some theory because well, those are the rules.

Secondly, those same academic rules prevented Eichhorn from digging really deep into those archives and analysing and presenting everything she found there. All her findings had to fit into abstract philosophical theories and concepts that don’t seem so relevant or necessary for her research and it made her focus on less interesting findings. Less interesting, even for me, a super library/zine/riot grrrl geek. For example, while trying to shed a light on the importance of archives for zines and bridging generations, she included a rather embarassing story, which didn’t do her hypothesis any good. She insists that an academic archive had helped to bridge the gap between different generations of feminists, but in reality the zines written by those feminists did (the authors were already in touch and Eichhorn’s academic connections failed).

Thirdly, because as an academic Eichhorn researched academic institutions (it would have been interesting if she had analysed the relevance and practice of grassroots archives/libraries too but maybe that can be done by DIY researchers) I had the impression she couldn’t allow herself to be as critical as she could have been. Or was it caused by her passion about the contents of the collections? For example she doesn’t question the limited public accessibility policies of some of the collections and doesn’t even mention or look into possible strategies to balance accessibility and preservation. The activist aims of the herstoric archives she describes in the first chapter (who were found to keep the feminist struggle alive and focused on the future as well as on the past) seemed to have disappeared from her radar when she visits the three third wave collections (accept the Barnard Zine Library because accessibility and student activism are some of their main reasons of existence).

And finally, Eichhorn wants to prove the importance of riot grrrl as an avant-garde cultural movement instead of “merely” a subculture. But being part of institutionalised feminism as an academic researcher, I think she doesn’t consider the possibility that riot grrrl and the feminist zine scene didn’t/don’t want to be part of the established art scene and that making zines and punk songs is proudly countercultural. Subcultures and countercultures offer the possibility to imagine AND practice alternatives to the establishment; radical feminist movements neither need nor desire to join / be accepted by them. Sure the writing and art of third wave feminists is important but does it have to be measured by patriarchal standards to be able to fit in patriarchal art and literary canons? No necessarily in my opinion. Maybe not all (ex-)riot grrrls agree with me on this but riot grrrl was invented to exist beyond the institutions (even if you can never be totally disconnected). If it wasn’t, these women would have written books or magazine articles instead of zines, and signed major record company deals (which some of them did of course, after a while). Remember DIY? It’s not just for those who fail to be professional writers/artists, it can be a conscious and political choice too.

Archives are important for social justice movements in so many ways and it’s interesting to look for the connections between archives, self-published media, and feminist activism. I just expected more from a book on such fascinating subject matter. I missed a more in-depth look at archives as a potential activist tool, how accessibility and preservation can be balanced, insights on inclusivity and diversity of materials when building collections, ideas and strategies for community outreach and participation (beyond the ivory tower of academia), and how contemporary archives can encourage future feminist activism. Maybe these questions can’t be answered within academia and we need archivists and activists to speak for themselves? The Archival Turn in Feminism was still a very worthwhile read but it could have been as fascinating as the collections, its zines, and its archivists/librarians it researched.

[I wrote more about archives and activism in Same Heartbeats #12!]

About rebelsister

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