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Biography 25.3 (2002) 513-518

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Helen M. Buss and Marlene Kadar, eds. Working in Women's Archives: Researching Women's Private Literature and Archival Documents. Waterloo, ONT: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2001. 125 pp. ISBN 0-88920-341-5, $24.95.

This is the tenth in the Life Writing Series, published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press. One of the editors of this collection, Marlene Kadar, is indeed the Editor of that series. Three of the previous books in the series have involved more than general editorial participation by Kadar, and another of the volumes is Helen Buss's memoirs, penned under her non-academic nomde plume, Margaret Clarke. The Series mandate is to publish

life writing and new life-writing criticism in order to promote autobiographical accounts, diaries, letters and testimonials written and/or told by women and men whose political, literary or philosophical purposes are central to their lives. Life Writing features the accounts of ordinary people.
Priority is given to manuscripts that provide access to those voices that have not traditionally had access to the publication process. [End Page 513]

In this mandate, Life Writing has a great deal in common with my own series, Legacies Shared, published by the University of Calgary Press. I have been more successful in including the voices of men: the only male voices raised in Life Writing are those of schoolboys in a collection of Letters from Rural Children. I have also been able to keep truer to the commitment to publish "accounts of ordinary people," and of "those voices that have not traditionally had access to the publication process." Marion Engel is not "ordinary people." Neither arguably is Dorothy Joudrie, a recently deceased oil patch matron from my own city who shot a deserting husband six times in the back and successfully argued the insanity defense. And neither of course is the elegantly literary Helen Buss. Ordinary, that is. The six volumes published so far in my series have plumbed the prosaic more single-mindedly, though I have slipped of late into the celebrity of an important (though not well-known) prairie artist (in press), and a pivotal (though overlooked) northern judge (in preparation).

My point here is not to set up a competition between Kadar and myself, or between our two series, but rather to consider how two very different disciplines prepare in quite different ways practitioners of the interdisciplinary field of life writing. I am an historian and a lawyer. As such, I am immersed in the crucial importance of narrative, and of ferreting out evidence. Kadar and Buss and the five other contributors to Working in Women's Archives come at life writing from the angle of literature. Perhaps the most telling way to demonstrate the chasm separating us is to note that "Life Writing will also publish original theoretical investigations about life writing, as long as they are not limited to one author or text." I can't imagine a theoretical investigation that could find a home in Legacies Shared. And I can't imagine that Life Writing could offer even a night's lodging to the type of writing that informs three of my volumes so far, and will continue to do so in the future. Commonly dubbed "oral history," these volumes rely heavily on interviews which a genuine "author," rather than "editor," tries to make sense of. In other words, the creator of the manuscript first goes out and collects the primary material—"voices that have not traditionally had access to the publication process"—and writes "history" that could not be written by relying on archives alone. This provides me with much more latitude than Kadar has, and certainly accounts for the fact that I can boast more ordinariness. It also accounts to some extent for my better record in the maleness category as well, for the simple reason that in large part decently written male tracts have generally been able to find publishers heretofore. Overlooked female manuscripts are much more likely to be thick on the ground. [End Page 514]