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Somewhere in my parents’ bungalow, my mother has carefully stored away an unfinished quilt. My mum started to make it when I was a child; it contains hundreds of individual hexagonal pieces, laid out in a basic flower pattern, cut from the leftovers of every item of clothing she ever made for me. It contains; cotton she used to make my Brownie uniform, corduroy she used to make matching skirts for me and her, brushed cotton from my nighties and so on. The quilt has never been finished or resolved, and lies somewhere in the loft, incomplete. It is a specific selection of her dressmaking projects, framed in one archival body; each piece alluding to or reminding me of deep, intimate stories about our lives together. I remember wearing the clothes, mum remembers making them and I am sure the fabric scraps trigger a range of anecdotal stories from friends and family. There is no end to it. I could rescue it from where ever it is, and continue my mum’s ambitious project, by adding to it somehow. It could remain unseen and unfinished or never to be found again. A whole history lost.

On Wednesday June 28th, I made my way up to Bristol University's Arts and Social Sciences Library for Bristol Feminist Archive South Collective Annotation / Archival Discovery Workshop. The session was one of two led by DM Withers, and focused on the themes of Immigration, Asylum and Anti-deportation Activism. The last time I’d been in this building was over 20 years ago, to research my undergraduate dissertation. A small group of ten or so participants trickled into the Special Collections room, laid out with a large central table and chairs. On the table were five or six small piles of archival material and places for each participant, set with an agenda for the afternoon and sharp pencil.

Feminist Archive South Website

After introductions, including a demonstration on how to drink water around archival material, DM laid out some of the context around the Feminist Archive South, and what we were going to do during the workshop. We were taken on a thrilling, whirl wind tour of some the issues that digitally re:imagining an archive can open up. These included; women centred classification systems, some dangers or difficulties of digital technology, intervening in the architecture of digital archival infrastructures, data and meta data, the semantic web, the value and connections between thinking and handwriting and so on. We then turned our attention to the neat piles of flyers, pamphlets and newspapers from the Feminist Archive South’s topic box ‘Immigration, Asylum and Anti-deportation Activism’. They were tantalisingly stacked neatly in the centre of the table.

Photocredit - D-M Withers

DM invited us to choose a piece of archive material and describe it using Dublin Core 1995. We were asked to hand write fifteen meta data elements for each item, with pencil and paper. The first thing I chose was Outwrite, a women’s newspaper from the 80’s. I wasn’t sure how to apply the data elements to an entire paper; this was my archival experience after all. A kindly neighbour suggested I work with a small, perhaps simpler piece. I chose to describe two flyers by LESPOP.

All at once, each item from that topic box, became a piece of patchwork material, that had the potential to be described in any number of ways and contain an unknown array of intensely personal resonances and associations. After working by ourselves, most people in the group shared their descriptions. This amplified the complexities and magnitude of the task of digitising the Feminist Archive South. Each piece of archive material is quite different in content, size, shape and form, and must be carefully analysed, in order to hand sew it into place within the archive, through giving it; a title, creator, subject, description, publisher, contributor, date, type, format, identifier, source, language, relation, coverage and rights. Each piece needs to be carefully positioned in relation to other pieces. Eventually this information will be threaded together on the world wide web, to create a large, open ended quilt of meta data. The experience of describing the archival material was mesmeric, repetitious, labour intensive and relational. It is women’s work. The act if archiving, became for me, a hand-made act, an act from the body and an act of making herstories visible. Like my mother’s quilt, we risk never seeing these stories if we don’t attend to them.

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