Interview: Producing the Archival Body with Jamie A. Lee – Lucy Brownson

Portrait of Prof Jamie A. Lee, wearing a black top, navy blue blazer and silver hoop earrings. Credit - University of Arizona iSchool.

On a bitterly cold March morning, Prof Jamie A. Lee is showing me the citrus fruits ripening in their garden. ‘We make mocktails with the grapefruit juice,’ they explain, ‘and we’re enjoying sunsets in the backyard with them in hand.’ It’s snowing heavily in my northern English city, but for the duration of our Zoom call, Jamie welcomes me into their home in the early spring warmth of Tucson, Arizona as we discuss their new book, Producing the Archival Body. Drawing on archival and queer theory, along with the author’s work as an archival educator and a community archivist, the book explores the everyday lives of record creators and archivists, engaging with the synergetic relationship between archival bodies, human bodies, and knowledge production. In what follows, Jamie delves into the ideas, people and histories at the heart of Producing the Archival Body.

LB: How do you define the archival body? How and when did the concept originate?

JAL:  Well, I first started to think about it when I was getting my PhD with [leading trans studies scholar] Prof Susan Stryker. She’s a historian and an archivist, and when she came to the University of Arizona, she gave me a room in the Institute for LGBT Studies. I started taking her classes and considering expanding the oral history project I’d been doing by building a physical collection, and I began to play with different disciplinary ideas and bringing them into play with ideas of the archive. Around this time, I slowly – but emphasise slowly – built the physical and material aspects of the Arizona Queer Archives (AQA), working closely with community members. Building the AQA got me thinking about the bodies of the humans who create and produce these materials – how does thinking about these bodies affect traditional ideas of archival ‘neutrality’ and standardisation?

At that point I was also taking a class on feminist and other social movements with Dr Frank Galarte, and I began thinking through [sociologist] Avery Gordon’s ideas around complex personhood and our human contradictions; I wondered how moving and adjusting who we are influences our archives. I started seeing the archives as this archival body with its own histories of colonialism and power hierarchies, yet there are also the nuanced histories of what’s actually in the collection – these contradictions – and archival practices and protocols are structuring how the archives gets out into the world, how it moves in the world. I started to think of these archival practices as the ‘skin’ of the archive, this kind of gatekeeping mechanism protecting its various organs and bodily functions… So you start to see the ways that these different bodies interact and build new histories, the figurations of what we do and the bodies that produce the material. When I think about the archival body, I think of its similarities to the human body. It’s moving, living, growing, shedding certain histories and becoming new, and it – like us – changes over time, so really, archival ‘objectivity’ is an impossibility.

LB: Producing the Archival Body proposes queering archival practices. How might archivists begin to bring queer theory into their own work?

JAL: When I first started thinking about queering the archive, I asked: what does it mean to use queer theory as an action in the archive, using it to disrupt certain norms and narratives? In chapter 2 of the book, which explores time, I talk about the finding aid. and often when we create finding aids, they end up becoming a ‘final’ document. What happens if we make the finding aid a lively conversation? And so [at the AQA] we added a field to the catalogue and asked [archivist] Hope Herr-Cardillo, when you’re cataloguing, can you add a conversation? How are you responding to the items you’re processing and thinking about? Hope created this finding aid with their notes included, and we showed it to the records creator who was still alive, and it brought on this whole renewed excitement about the archive and his collection and his history! We all had breakfast together and it was the first time they met, and we talked about a post-human love affair: Hope was working with the documents and falling in love with the stories that the documents are telling, like jazz collections and the birthday cards he wrote to himself, and now they meet and have a conversation in person.

All of this made me think about the ways we can play with the archive and try new things. In archival education, there’s a lot of room for change to consider the ways that archives inspire emotion, how they affect what we’re doing as archivists, to really take our time. Invoking Jane Anderson and Kimberly Christen’s idea of slow archives, what would it look like if we were to slow down our work, too, and bring our whole selves into it? I think we can incorporate queer theory as a disruption: not just as a representational thing like an ‘LGBT+ collection’, but a queer intervention. We can explore the slowness of our work and the reflective way(s) we can do it.

LB: Your work draws on years’ worth of experience as a community archivist. Could you talk a little about your positionality as both a researcher, archivist, and community member?

JAL: In the book, I write about going to someone’s house and doing an onsite appraisal of their materials, and how our role as community archivists is also one in which we’re caretakers of people, not just the things they’ve donated. We can’t necessarily divorce ourselves from our community connections in this work; it takes a lot of continued nurturing. This shapes the archive’s lifetime and its sustainability in that people feel connected to you, they feel connected to their story because it’s a part of the archive. It’s about building and maintaining relationships – like with JayKyle Petersen, the first intersex person who donated material to the AQA. After his oral history, he came to the archive to tell me about the things he wanted to donate. We walked through handwritten notes and he shared that some of the materials bore coffee stains or marks, and he said, ‘oh, they’re all dirty’ – and I’m like, ‘no, I love it! It’s the traces of you!’ We started talking about what it means for our records to show what our everyday lives are like, and he started crying because he never thought an archive would be interested in his stuff. The record creators sometimes think of an archive as a place that wouldn’t want their stuff, but a community archive is a relationship, a place that builds relationships. Suddenly my items, my records, the cap that my grandmother gave me – they all might have a home.

With the Arizona Queer Archives, even the naming of it is problematic with Arizona being such a xenophobic state and the passing of bills that police the identities of brown and Black and trans people. Then we have the word ‘queer’, which a lot of our elders hate because it was used against them. Bringing ‘Arizona’ and ‘Queer’ together then becomes this political statement, and the fact that people consider it as a home for their materials means they think of the community archive and the community archivist as trustworthy. This isn’t because of white gloves or stable, monolithic framings, but it’s the relationship. So you start to see how important relationship is for a community archive.

Black and white archive image of Leslie Carson, SW Feminists Reunion Group, wearing dungarees and gesturing with their hand. Credit – Arizona Queer Archives & Leslie Carson

LB: Do you have any advice for new professionals in the sector who want to challenge the dominant way of doing things?

JAL: Well, it’s a hard time right now with limited resources and limited jobs, but I think we need to consider how we can live without this constant fear of scarcity. I teach my own archival studies students to build up their confidence to a point where they can sit around a table in their new workplace and raise their hand and ask, why are we doing that? Why do we do things that way? Ask the questions, understand the histories, and get to feeling confident enough to identify and call out practices and policies that are exclusionary; ask about how to do things differently, more inclusively. You’re in a new hierarchy, your voice will quiver, it’ll be nerve-wracking – but even asking a question disrupts the status quo, so let’s question it. Let’s question why we do what we’re expected to do – who said this is the ‘right’ way to do it? It’s all about strengthening your voice and building your confidence to ask those questions and effect change incrementally. The drop makes a hole in the stone not by its weight, but by its constantly dropping.

Lucy Brownson is a doctoral researcher at the University of Sheffield and the Chatsworth House Trust, where she explores feminised labour in historic house archives at the intersections of gender and class. She is an organiser of Sheffield Feminist Archive.

Jamie A. Lee is Associate Professor of Digital Culture, Information, and Society in the School of Information – Arizona’s iSchool – at the University of Arizona, where their research and teaching attend to critical archival theory and methodologies, multimodal media-making contexts, storytelling, and bodies.

Producing the Archival Body is part of the Routledge Studies in Archives series. Keep up to date with Jamie’s research via The Storytelling Lab; they’re also on Twitter. Learn more about the Arizona Queer Archives by exploring the collections.

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