Friday, August 31, 2012

5 Questions With Graduate Teaching Assistant Sarah L. Jones

1. How did you spend your summer?

I travelled to the Sophia Smith Collection (SSC) Archives in Northampton, MA on a Friends of Smith College Libraries Fellowship. The collection is internationally recognized and has been compiling various resources for over 65 years resulting in over 650 collections of archival material. I lived there for five weeks and visited the archives every weekday to research the International Women’s Tribune Centre (IWTC). During this time, I studied over 5,000 documents across 34 boxes. As the collection itself is currently holding 120 boxes with more expected this Fall, I anticipate another research trip to see what treasures are still waiting.

2. How does the archive fit into your dissertation project?
My dissertation brings together research from the fields of Rhetoric and Public Culture and Organizational Communication. Now defunct, the IWTC originated as the planning committee for the 1975 International Women’s Year Tribune in Mexico City. For over 35 years, the IWTC has worked with local and global organizations and individuals around the world to promote equality, development, and peace. The lifeline of this organization catalogued in its internal and public messages traces a number of important transitions of the last quarter of the 20th century. I am utilizing the archival documents to trace an understanding of peace that moves beyond the narrow, military definition of not fighting. Building peace, I argue, is essentially a rhetorical activity Toward that end, the IWTC holdings point to questions about the role of women in peacebuilding and strategies for negotiating peacekeeping in local and global spheres. The second consideration blends into another aspect of my dissertation: local-global rhetorical dynamics. The IWTC straddled working with international organizations such as the United Nations and local groups such as the Women of Uganda Network and unaffiliated volunteers. By studying this organization, I aim to illuminate the interacting discourses and power dynamics at play as principal participants navigated local and global goals and affiliations. In constructing a rhetorical and organizational history of the IWTC, my dissertation traces not only the organizational forms of the group, but also a rhetorical history of peace and local-global discourses.

3. What was the most exciting thing you found in the archives?
I am still analyzing the documents that I gathered. SSC allows researchers to take digital photographs of documents as long as the pictures are documented and do not use a flash. By the time I left, I had taken over 4,000 photographs. Thus far, I am most energized by the organizational life cycle the IWTC progressed through over its life. Established by a UN resolution, the organization’s purpose and actions were guided by that mandate and its planning obligations. Following the Mexico City Tribune, the group was flooded with letters requesting follow-up information about women’s issues and organizations around the world. After responding to these requests and transitioning from typewriters to Word Processors, the IWTC began calling itself an “information clearinghouse”—writing newsletters and compiling information contributed from readers into booklets such as “Appropriate Technology Resource Book for Women.” By the end of their timeline, the IWTC not only compiled and produced information for women, but members also coordinated local projects in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Looking at this chronology, I was struck by the shifting organizational forms that evolved in tandem with digitization. The IWTC transitioned away from a clearinghouse model to a responsive and participatory organizational form, a move that parallels how Communication Studies has drifted away from thinking about communication as a mere conduit for information exchange and towards richer, more dynamic models.

4. What was the hardest part about the archival experience?
I found the overall archival experience to be enlightening and enjoyable. I travelled by myself and lived somewhere new with people I have never met. I had fun exploring Northampton’s shops and farmer’s market. My walks to and from campus provided a great time for a mental debrief to create a plan for the day and sort out my thoughts afterward. While I was there to accomplish a research goal, I did not anticipate how alone I would be. During the day, the library archives are quiet as people work. While I lived with three other people, our schedules never quite matched up. I was caught off-guard by this, but I sent some friends and family postcards from SSC, talked to them on the phone and via email, and tried to feel connected by posting photographs of Northampton on Facebook. In the future, I think I will use these strategies and perhaps even set up a social schedule—phone dates with specific people at specific times.

5. Do you have any advice for future archival researchers?
When conducting archive research, logistics are important. Find out if the collection is processed and talk to the archivist about the organization of the holding. If it is not fully processed, then finding aids may not be available and if they are, they may not be complete. This was the case with the IWTC holdings. At SSC, I sat down on my first day with the first box listed. I went through every document in every folder and made notes about what each document was. This first box took the longest, but by the end I felt as though I was embedded in the collection. Moving on to subsequent boxes, I knew the format that different types of documents took, the kind of paper they were on, and whether or not they fit into my research agenda. This allowed me to progress through future boxes more efficiently (and I think effectively).

After developing this kind of familiarity, I recommend making a plan. Considering the size of the collection, your plan may have varying degrees of specificity. First, look at the finding aids and rank the boxes as best you can (considering whether the collection is processed or not). Divide these rankings into tiers based on priority. I had four groupings: need to get through, love to get through, could get through, probably not helpful. The first tier contains documents that speak to topics specific to my research. Going down tiers, the likelihood that these topics are present decreases. The boxes in my last category contained documents such as correspondence between the IWTC and individuals asking for copies of booklets and newsletters that are in boxes in the higher tiers.