- Ephemeral Material: Queering the Archives by Alana Kumbier
Ephemeral Material brings together theoretical and methodological discussions about queer archival practices focused around five case studies. Alana Kumbier is the Critical Social Inquiry and Digital Pedagogy Librarian at Hampshire College in Amherst, Maryland, where she teaches and practises critical library instruction. She holds a graduate degree in Library and Information Science from Kent State University, Ohio, and completed a PhD in Comparative Studies at the Ohio State University. Ephemeral Material is adapted from Kumbier’s dissertation work, which she concluded in 2009. The book is the fifth volume in Litwin Books’ groundbreaking series Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies, which has previously explored feminist pedagogy in library instruction, documenting queer activism and workplace issues for LGBTQ librarians.
The very concept of “queering the archives” raises important questions for information professionals. Queer is not an easy word for some of us, and it is worth exploring how and why Kumbier has elected to use it in her work. The word queer, which originally meant “strange” or “out of sorts,” evolved in the late 19th century into a common pejorative slang term used to describe homosexuality. The use of queer also sets up heterosexual desire as a “normal” sexual expression in opposition to the “peculiarity” of same-sex desire. In the 1980s, activist groups responding to the AIDS crisis deliberately adopted the offensive term as a way to challenge and disrupt heteronormative politics [End Page 167] and culture. By the end of the 1990s, queer had not only been reclaimed to describe a politicized sexual identity, but it had also been incorporated into academic scholarship as part of a wave of research grappling with the very nature of sexual and gender expression. The idea that political and cultural practices could be “queered” emerged alongside the writing of Judith Halberstam (1998), who describes queering as a verb and queer methodology as a “scavenger methodology that uses different methods to collect and produce information on subjects who have been deliberately or accidentally excluded from traditional studies of human behavior” (p. 13). This history is important to understand because queer nevertheless remains contested both within and outside of academic communities; however, when evoked with careful consideration, queer can be a critical linguistic tool.
Kumbier uses queer as both adjective and verb, and as a way to describe the oppositional, unruly, and coalitional approaches to archival studies and archival practices that she observes in her case studies. It is the very queer-ness of these approaches that calls attention to the deficiencies in traditional archival practices, particularly those that obfuscate political and cultural contributions from sexual and ethno-cultural minorities. As Kumbier notes in her introduction, the concept of queering the archives also responds to Laura Millar’s call for a more “expansive understanding of archives” (p. 12). By focusing on queer archival practices, rather than LGBTQ collections, Kumbier suggests that projects such as zine making and documentary filmmaking complement more conventional collecting as they are a means to create and reimagine heritage as something more than GLAMs (galleries, libraries, archives, museums). As she discovered in her own fieldwork, queer archival initiatives can even be temporary endeavours that may not ever contribute to traditional heritage systems. The very notion that archival initiatives can be short-lived challenges longstanding assumptions about the purpose and power of archives as persistent tombs of documentary evidence. It also highlights the importance of archival work as a critical practice.
The book is divided into two sections, each prefaced by a short introduction that draws out parallels and implications that emerge from particular case studies. In the first section, “Negotiating Archives,” Kumbier includes case studies that look at two films: Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 feature, The Watermelon Woman, and the 1999 documentary Liebe Perla, which explores the experiences of short-statured people during the Holocaust. Archivists may be more familiar with Dunye’s film, given its status as a cult favourite and the attention it has received from critical theorists Ann Cvetkovich1 and Laura L. Sullivan.2 [End...