The Archival Turn in Feminism: Outrage in Order

By Kate Eichhorn. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2013. 208 pp. $69.50 (hardcover). EAN: 978-1-43990-951-5. $27.95 (paperback) EAN: 978-1-43990-952-2 

In The Archival Turn in Feminism: Outrage in Order, Kate Eichhorn examines the cultural output of feminists who came of age in the early and mid-1990s, and the migration of this material into libraries and archives at academic institutions. The book is centered on case studies of three different institutions that hold material related to Riot Grrrl, a cultural movement in the early 1990s that combined radical feminism with punk’s sound and a do-it-yourself ethos, and fostered many kinds of cultural production by young women. Eichhorn’s methodology, which brings together archival research, ethnographic research, and cultural theory, is well-suited to her investigation, and she compellingly argues that recent interest on the part of librarians, archivists, activists, and scholars in documenting the third wave of feminism is about more than understanding the past or preserving cultural artifacts for future generations. For this younger generation of feminist information professionals, creators, activists, and scholars, archives and libraries possess more immediate implications and possibilities. Archives are “a way to engage with some of the legacies, epistemes, and traumas pressing down on the present” as well as “an apparatus to legitimize new forms of knowledge and cultural production in an economically and politically precarious present” (5, 4).

In the first two case studies, the zine collections at Duke University’s Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture and the Riot Grrrl Collection at New York University’s Fales Library and Special Collections, Eichhorn focuses on the meanings created in the contextualization and recontextualization that results from the inclusion of feminist materials in these archives. Superficially the Riot Grrrl Collection at the Fales Library might seem similar to the zine collections of the Bingham Center: both are collections that document the Riot Grrrl movement and are held by private academic institutions. However, the form of these collections, the intentions behind locating them at these institutions, and the other materials held by these institutions differ, and since, as Eichhorn argues, these contexts matter, the meanings and possibilities created by the collections represent different functions of archives in the present.

Eichhorn is interested in how the zines held at the Bingham Center interact with the other holdings there that document girl culture, as well as earlier feminist movements, especially the second wave. She argues that by situating these material together, archives create “new and potentially productive proximities” which reinforce the continuities and intergenerational connections between the second wave and the third wave of feminism, and create spaces for scholars and activists to encounter, research, and build on feminist history and scholarship in ways that run counter to the popular narrative of animosity and antagonism between generations of feminists (61). In her consideration of the Riot Grrrl collection at Fales, Eichhorn investigates how archives can endow legitimacy “to works of art as well as individual artists and writers with varying degrees of cultural capital and privilege” (119). The Fales collection does not document Riot Grrrl as a mass movement of young women, but as an artistic and literary movement with leading figures, and therefore focuses on collecting the personal papers of individuals such as Kathleen Hanna and Johanna Fateman. The inclusion of their papers at the Fales Library, which also collects material related to the downtown New York art scene in the late 20th century, legitimizes their “cultural and knowledge production… as art, literature, and theory and not simply youthful rebellion” (121).

Throughout all of her case studies, Eichhorn is attentive to the work done by archivists and librarians. She includes interviews with the professionals at each institution who have been instrumental in the creation of these collections. This approach is particularly valuable in the final study of Barnard College’s Zine Library where Eichhorn locates radical possibilities that extend beyond the walls of Barnard as existing not only in the collection itself, but also in Jenna Freedman’s work in cataloging. Freedman catalogs the zines in the collection individually, rendering them more accessible through library catalogs including WorldCat, a globally shared catalog, thereby “heightening the visibility of both zines and contemporary feminist discourses” (129). Eichhorn also describes how Freedman continues the work of an earlier generation of radical catalogers by pushing the rigidity of cataloging standards, particularly the Library of Congress subject headings used to describe materials, to make visible alternative identities, practices, and knowledges that were previously obscured and inaccessible. By lobbying for new subject headings that more accurately represent the communities and individuals who created and are documented in these works, Freedman is making these terms available not only to herself but to any catalogers working with related material, and creating new points of access for researchers.

Eichhorn sees her audience as including scholars as well as professional archivists and librarians, and both groups will find this title a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion around archives and activism. Eichhorn also intends for this book to bridge the gap she perceives as existing between these two audiences. Archivists sometimes find cultural theorists’ interest in archives frustrating, as their own work and theoretical insights are often overlooked. Eichhorn acknowledges this shortcoming, and works to remedy it. Her own research experience and her interviews with librarians, archivists, and donors have given Eichhorn a deep understanding and respect for the work archivists and librarians do, and her theoretical approach illuminates the implications of their work. Eichhorn also acknowledges the “semantic drift” that has accompanied cultural theorists’ interest in archives (18). However, even as she draws on the theorists responsible for this semantic drift, Eichhorn tries to adhere to definitions and standards of archives that come from within the profession. Her thoughtful approach to these issues should help her meet her goal of making this volume “relevant to these frontline workers in their attempt to think through the broader political and cultural implications of their day-to-day labor” and of prompting scholars to “take more seriously the theoretical insights of information professionals” (20).


Kate Collins

Duke University