domain expiring in february


As I have transferred all existing and new content to the feminist librarian, I am letting the annajcook.com domain registration expire February 9, 2015.

After that date, this blog will continue to exist under annajcook.blogspot.com as a record / back-up of the feminist librarian from 2007-2014. However, as has been the case since September 1, 2014, all new content will continue to be posted at thefeministlibrarian.com.

Hope to see you there!



after 7 years, the feminist librarian is moving!

As I noted before the August hiatus, the feminist librarian is migrating to Wordpress! It now sports its own domain name: thefeministlibrarian.com. The site is now live and you are welcome to visit, poke around, and let me know what works and doesn't.

Beginning September 1st, 2014 all future posts will appear in that space, so please update your RSS feeds, bookmarks, etc. accordingly.

I have migrated all 1,000+ posts from this space, complete with comments. I have no plans to delete this site in the short term, but annajcook.blogspot.com will become an inactive historical record rather than the home of the feminist librarian moving forward. 


august blogging vacation + september migration

Brought to you by the peaceful galleries of the
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
I'll be taking August off from blogging here at the feminist librarian as I wrap up some other writing projects that have been too long delayed. I hope that all of you are having a peaceful and/or productive end to the summer and I will see you in September!

... Which brings me to my related announcement that the feminist librarian will finally be migrating from Blogger to Wordpress at the end of the month, and graduating to its own domain name! Details will be posted here once the new space has been designed and gone public, and the archives from 2007-2014 will remain here as well as migrating to the new site. After seven (!) years, I have decided it's time for a change.

See you on the flipside.


booknotes: out in the country

Last week I reviewed Sarah Schulman's Ties That Bind which explored from a very personal perspective the ravages of familial homobigotry. This week I picked up and read Mary L. Gray's Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America (New York University Press, 2009). Gray's ethnographic study of queer teen lives in rural Kentucky took place in the early 2000s and she published her book in the same year as Schulman. Both authors write thoughtfully about the importance of family in the lives of their queer subjects -- though from very different perspectives. Ironically -- given our usual narrative of urban tolerance vs. rural bigotry -- Gray's consideration of the place of family within queer lives is much more nuanced than Schulman's.

As a researcher, Gray came from a rural California childhood followed by an urban California adulthood working with queer youth organizations. Her exploration of teen lives in rural Kentucky was prompted by national attention on the ways in which the Internet and other media connectivity and queer visibility might work differently in the lives of rural young people rather than urban young people. As she (and others before her) have pointed out, much of our understanding of queer coming-of-age posits a rural-to-urban migration in which our queer selves are incapable of being fully discovered and/or nourished until we "escape" our hometown settings and find the LGBT community in physical locales -- gay bars, lesbian bookstores, gay ghettos, queer action groups. Pushing back against this assumption, Gray sought out youth who were either unable or uninterested in making such a migratory journey of self-discovery. How would young queer people without the resources or desire to leave rural life for the city construct a queer identity?

In Ties That Bind, urban-based adult writer Schulman struggles with familial rejection in the face of her queer activism and chosen family of fellow lesbian, gay, and other non-straight friends. Ties is firmly situation in the milieu of Gay New York, a landscape we all (at least think we) know well, and situates its lesbian protagonist (Schulman) as an adult who struggles to connect with her parents and siblings, but as an adult dragging them to therapy appointments or participating (or not) in rituals like the weddings of relatives. Schulman's pain is that of an adult attempting to reconcile with the failures of her parents' parenting.

In contrast, Gray explores the dense interconnectivity necessary for survival in isolated rural settings. Families of origin, she argues, make or break the experience of rural queer folk in communities where the familiar is often the key to acceptance. Straight family members can act as brokers for their queer youths -- turning the queer into the familiar, making one of "them" into one of "us". The most resilient teens whom Gray encountered were typically youths whose parents supported their identity explorations and attempts to build broader support networks: paying for internet or access to health services, driving them long distances to regional meet-ups, participating in protest actions, or other acts which communicated to fellow townsfolk that their child was not to be disavowed. The more vulnerable children were those whose families either could not or would not provide such support -- in part because, unlike urban queer adults, these youths could not take the city bus to the "gay" district or surreptitiously visit the "women's" bookstore.

In some ways Gray's work underscores the central point that Schulman makes: that queer family members can't just disown their families of origin -- no matter how anti-gay those families are -- and replace them with chosen families without consequence. For Schulman, those consequences are mostly emotional and psychological: the pain of rejection, the loss of future relationship. For Gray's teens, in addition to the emotional support (or pain) a family can provide (or cause) for their queer members in a hostile culture, families are also the gateway to material resources and community belonging. The visibility of queer culture in the media, and access to information -- plus the ability to connect to far-flung networks -- that the Internet provides cannot replace, for queer youth, the insulation that local relationships provide. Nor does an urban-oriented narrative of queerness reliably serve these young people as they work to create usable identities for themselves and their communities.

This was a useful read, one which I might pair with Pray the Gay Away (also about queer folk in the Bible Belt around Louisville, Kentucky) and Not in This Family (challenging the narrative of universal familial rejection of queer family members in postwar America).


friday evening thoughts on sociality

I had lunch with a friend today - a rare opportunity though we live in the same city and, until recently, only several streets away from one another. We both work, on opposite sides of the River of Charles, we're both married -- to spouses we like to spend time with on a daily basis --, and both of us are that breed of people society identifies as "introverts." Working in public services, at the end of a seven, eight, nine hours of being "on" around other people, the last thing we usually have oomph for is happy hour or dinner out. Most days, I can barely string out enough public-space energy to pick up a book at the library, stop by the back, or pick up a foodstuff on my way home.

What this means, in practical day-to-day terms, is that the maintenance and cultivation of social connections with my people is spatially and temporally constrained: I need to be careful about how far, how long, and how many commitments I make. Since weekends need to be reserved, to a great extent, for quiet recharging -- both Hanna and I need down time -- we can usually at most make one social plan a weekend. A booked week, for me, usually looks like a weekend activity and a weekday lunch with a colleague. Three such meetings and I start to feel prostrate with togetherness.

This, I must stress, even with people I like very much and enjoy being around.

I was thinking, after the lovely lunch with my friend today; a lunch at which we talked about our mutual need for such unscheduled weekends, and the affective labor of public services work that -- while rewarding in the context of professional work we both chose and (mostly) love -- takes a particular toll on the private lives of those introverted people who choose to pursue it. In that it enforces a rather severe rationing of non-waged sociality.

I grew up outside this system of required togetherness (at work; at school) that our Western society largely expects of its worker-citizens. This might surprise people who assume homeschooling is like their worst memories of being trapped at home 24/7 with family members during summer vacation. I think my mother experienced some of that intense isolation of early-childhood parenting when we were small, but for much later childhood and early adolescence what I chiefly remember is the hours of privacy or one-to-one play (with a sibling, with a friend). I would closet myself in my room with a stack of books from the library and sometimes not emerge until they were devoured -- perhaps then only to run down the street for more! College and graduate school, in some ways, allowed me to extend this period of self-organized time; work and classes took social energy, but long periods of uninterrupted, solitary study time fed the soul. Living alone, or at the very least with a room of my own, gave me the space to cultivate intentional friendships and the energy to nurture them.

Such time is precious difficult to come by these days.

Which brings me to a related point: that I continue to be grateful, in this period of space/time social drought, for the Interwebs and the social media tools that allow me to maintain my friendship and family ties -- even broaden them! -- in an ambient fashion. There's a sociological or psychological study to be made somewhere about how letter-writing, emailing, Twittering, Facebook updates, Google Chat, text messages, and the plethora of other tools we have for relationship maintenance in the virtual realm allow those of us with limited social energy to be social in ways that aren't emotionally and physically exhausting. Perhaps this isn't true for every introverted or highly-sensitive person; certainly the demands of connectivity have felt like a burden when I forget to use them as tools for my own means and ends. But I am unequivocal about the fact that they've given me a "third space" somewhat parallel to both the public and private parts of my days, weeks, months, in which to find a tenuous balance of self among others and keep my sanity at the same time.

This blog post has been brought to you by a day of rumination. Have the best weekend you can envision.


booknotes: ties that bind

Me, footnote hopping. The story of my life.

I found Sarah Schulman's Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences (New Press/Perseus, 2009) reading The Tolerance Trap and requested it inter-library loan thinking it was going to be a study of the ravages of anti-gay animus within families. Instead, it is more of a philosophical-political reflection on the practices within families (and by extension within the wider culture) that create we queer people as a lesser group. Schulman draws powerfully on work done by feminist activists around domestic violence and the workings of other types of prejudice such as antisemitism to describe how queer family members are isolated and scapegoated within families -- and how the social systems these families are a part of support that violence through passive bystander behaviors. She illustrates a lot of her observations with stories about her own family's unwillingness to maintain positive connections with her because of her lesbian identity: parents who say in front of her that she was born "bad'; siblings who refuse to allow her contact with her their children.

Reading Ties That Bind was personally disorienting as an experience; I kept checking the publication date -- really? 2009? -- because so much of what she was describing felt like the climate of the 1970s and 80s rather than the early 2000s. Which is definitely a good reminder that our experience, as queer individuals, of homobigotry is far from uniform, and that our treatment at the hands of friends and family shapes how we interpret and react to the structural and more distant social inequalities that continue to color all of our lives. Because of my family's support, and because of the social norms of my immediate community (expecting nondiscrimination), when I do encounter erasure or hostility I experience it as a departure from, rather than a reinforcement of, the morality of my people. That is, not only do I believe that there's no reason to fear my sexuality would harm children, but all of my friends and family members would look at someone like they were right bastards for suggesting such a thing.

That kind of support, in turn, leads to resilience for those of us who have it: with our many-layered communities behind is, we aren't isolated in the face of structural discrimination or individual acts of bigotry. For those whose families do disown them, as Schulman points out, the recourse is the much more difficult and contingent road of creating your own support system from scratch, always with the voices in the back of your head -- the parental authorities of your childhood -- telling you how worthless, how lesser-than, you are. These messages, in turn, reinforce the messages of the dominant culture that continue to erase, tokenize, or segregate the narratives of queer lives -- treating them as specialist subjects, "adult" content, something uninteresting to a more general readership or audience. As Elizabeth of Spilt Milk pointed out just this past week, Western culture still resists the notion that queer lives are human lives and as such deserve representation within popular cultures, curricula, and as commonplace within society. This is, essentially, the same message Schulman sought to impart in 2009, and despite legal gains in the rights arena we haven't made much headway in queering the mainstream.

In short, check Schulman out if you'd like to be reminded that things don't inevitably get better, and that our survival and resilience as non-straight people still depends a frightening amount on contingencies such as what family we were born in, what location(s) we grew up, where we find jobs, and how mainstream our queer performances are (not to mention all the other intersectional aspects of self we juggle: class, race and ethnicity, gender, citizenship, religion, body size, dis/ability, etc. etc. etc.).


"which materials in [your] collections support gendered stereotypes?" [comment post]

Mildred Mitchell
sitting under a frescoed wall (1918).
Massachusetts Historical Society
This week, I was contacted by a PhD candidate doing research on "archives and the construction of female identity." I had much to say about a couple of the questions, which I thought might be of more general interest to readers of this blog. So here is what I wrote!

4. Which materials in [your] collections support gendered stereotypes? Are there any examples materials which subvert these stereotypes? 

I find the framing of this question strange and confusing, perhaps because I am trained first and foremost as a historian. As a historian, I approach all collection materials as sources which can be understood in many ways. Most cultural artifacts do not in and of themselves support or subvert limited or fixed stereotypes or agendas; these artifacts are what we (the researchers) and any other individuals who interact with them (from creation to destruction) make of them. Rather than asking whether any particular item in our collections supports or subverts a particular understanding of gender (or sexuality or race or etc. etc. etc.), I would ask what the item might be able to tell us about how its creators and contemporaries understood gender (or etc.) in a multivalent sense. How did human beings make meaning using this item? What can this item tell us about the time and place in which it was created and used?

To use an example from the MHS collections which I, personally, have incorporated into my work as a historian, there is a deposition in the Godfrey Cabot Lowell Papers taken in 1914. It is the deposition, by a male member of the legal-judicial system, of a female office/retail worker about her experience of sexual-medical impropriety at the hands of a male doctor treating her for gynecological ailments. The deposition, as far as I have been able to piece together, is part of a larger case being assembled against the doctor for his activities, medical and personal. You can read the conference paper I wrote about the document here.

If we were to ask your question(s) of this item: does it support or subvert gender stereotypes, what would a meaningful answer be? One could argue the deposition was constructed in a context over-determined by a number of gender-based narratives: the female office worker, the sexually-naive spinster, the predatory male gynecologist, the hard-boiled private detective, the patriarchal morality police, the sexually immoral widow/madame with whom the doctor is living and working. The deposition and associated detective’s reports draw on all of these. Yet the deposition also offers up gender surprises, given its historical context. How did Nellie Keefe, the deposed woman, decide to speak out against the treatment that made her feel uncomfortable? How should we think about the persecution of a doctor for living with a woman (and perhaps enjoying a consensual sexual relationship with her) while unmarried? What bearing does that have on his medical practice? How are the women patients understood within the context of the case as gendered subjects? How does their agency in speaking out against the treatment they were uncomfortable with play into the “long game” persecution of the doctor for his domestic arrangements? Was the doctor acting inappropriately, based on the standard medical training of the day, in giving the treatment he did? To what extent are both women and men in this narrative leveraging and falling victim to narratives of gender salient in their specific time and place. Most historical texts (like our lived experiences!) are complex, multi-layered things which work within and against dominant narratives simultaneously.

As a reference librarian who works with researchers doing scholarship in the areas of women, gender, and sexuality -- along with other intersecting aspects of subjectivity and identity -- I see my job as helping a researcher to ask new questions of materials; to complicate our reading of what might at first glance seem self-evident as a source. I spend time brainstorming with researchers about where they might find documents or artifacts that speak in some way to their questions about gender and sexuality -- and the work they do with those items is quite often fresh and unique, challenging us to see particular moments in history and culture in new ways.

5. Should women’s collections, both those created by women and those about women’s activities, be kept in separate repositories or locations? Why? 

I believe in the organizational power (in a positive sense) of designated spaces and groups whose mandate is specifically to collect, preserve, and make accessible the documentary record of historically marginalized populations. The genesis of many special collections repositories for under-represented groups (people of color, religious minorities, women, LGBTQ folks, etc.) has often been within those communities themselves through grassroots organizing -- e.g. the Lesbian Herstory Archive. I believe those community-based archives have done (and continue to do) important work. I am also glad to see more conventional archives beginning to collect materials that more fully document all aspects of our culture and society. It is my hope that we will continue to have both types of archival repositories into the future, since I believe the “activist archive” and the institutional archive both serve important purposes within the ecosystem of the library/information professions.

Historically, the physical location of an archive or a collection has had significant bearing on who is able to access the materials the archive holds. Hence, it has often made sense for similar / like materials to be gathered in a specific location so that researchers can access them for a topical research project: e.g. lesbian pulp novels. Collecting policies often reflect this -- we don’t just take every collection we are offered, but rather consider whether it complements the other collections we have, or the goals of our repository in documenting certain aspects of history and culture: here at the MHS environmental history, for example, and Massachusetts family papers of the 18th and 19th centuries. My wife works at a repository that collects materials related to the history of medicine, so they collect physicians’ and medical researchers’ papers as well as print materials. As we are able to make collections more accessible through digitization, such geographical proximity can matter less (but still matter today, and will continue to matter for decades to come).

As an “activist archivist,” what I care about is that someone, somewhere, is collecting the materials related to histories of a wide range of people and groups. I want the employees at the institutions that care for these collections to believe in their worth and the necessity of their preservation. I’m pretty impartial as to whether those materials are held in an identity-based archive (e.g. a “women’s collection”) or whether they are held at a more eclectic institution. What I care about is that they are findable and accessible to whomever wishes to use them to further our knowledge of peoples and pasts. I would further complicate the issue of “women’s collections, both those created by women and those about women’s activities” by pointing out that each of us exists in the world with multiple facets of identity, and that making a present-day argument for the creation of women-focused collections (as opposed to historically women-centered collections) raises questions about how we would formulate a collecting policy for such an institution, and what such a policy implies or outright states about the notion of “women” as a discrete category of being.

Say you have a collection of personal and professional papers of a woman with both African (recent immigrant) and Euro-American ethnic and racialized heritage; she attended a historically-black college as an undergraduate, and then went on to seminary for an M.Div. Following several years as minister in the Reformed Church of America she left the ministry in order to openly marry her partner. She decides to pursue midwifery training so that she and her wife (a primary care physician) can set up a practice working with bisexual, lesbian, and trans* female couples around pregnancy, childbirth, and post-partum care. They become central movers and shakers in the women of color-led reproductive justice grassroots movement. The woman grew up in Georgia, attended graduate school in Michigan, then settled in Chicago with her wife whose family has roots in upstate New York and Western Massachusetts. After a long career in urban community-based women’s health activism, they retire to the Minneapolis/St. Paul (to be near the wife’s brother and his family). So, what’s the best place for these personal-professional records? In an archive that specializes in records of African-Americans? Women? Queer folks? People in the health sciences? Ordained individuals? Social justice activism? Should the records stay local to the Chicago area? Should they go to the HBCU institutional repository as an alumna collection?

I’m a cisgendered woman, but my womanhood is only SOMETIMES the most salient aspect of my identity (like when the Supreme Court decides because I’m a person with a uterus my workplace could pass judgement on my healthcare decisions). I’m also a librarian, a historian, a writer, a Euro-American with strong Scottish heritage, a bisexual lesbian -- where do my papers “best” belong, thirty years from now? It’s an imperfect science at best.

Any additional comments? 

In reflecting on your questions, I will say that it seems important to note that as a graduate student in library science / archives, with a background in women’s studies and history, I would have said my “ideal” job would be to work at a place like the Lesbian Herstory Archives, the Schlesinger Library, the Sophia Smith Collection -- somewhere that specializes in the historical subjects I find most interesting as a scholar. However, the job I found was here at the MHS, a repository that does not focus intentionally on any of my subjects of interest (history of sexuality, history of women and gender, history of social justice activism, history of religion, history of education, all emphasizing twentieth century American contexts…). Over time, I have grown to appreciate the important role I can play as a reference librarian in a more “generalist” research library in suggesting entry points into our collections that get at some of these subcultural and/or marginalized histories. Because of course even when we aren’t visible in the mainstream narratives, we have always been there -- to take queer sexuality as an example, it’s not like women sexually desiring women, and building relationships with them, is an invention of the twentieth century (though “Lesbian” as an identity construct, like “Straight” or “Cis” or “Trans*,” arguably is). So it’s important to remind researchers that they don’t have to go to “women’s collections” or “lesbian archives” to find stories that include queer folk. Which is not to say that finding us (people similar to us) isn’t harder in mainstream repositories, where finding guides and catalog records don’t necessarily indicate those aspects of an individual’s identity … to the extent that those aspects of identity are knowable.