When perusing the scrapbook of a Canadian female writer and artist, I find a twig of cedar clipped to its pages. Later, I read her handwritten letters, which reveal that the twig was exchanged as a token of affection between correspondents. I have been researching this writer for over a decade, and her archives have undergirded three of my books—a real gift, when I know that women’s archives are often scarce, if they exist at all.
“But how do I research and write about my subject when there’s no archive?” This is a question I’m often asked because of the frequent lack of material about women’s lives. The answer is layered, multidirectional.
Perhaps there is an archive—just not one in an official, state-sanctioned place, such as a university, museum, or library. There are materials; you just haven’t found them yet. You have to go beyond formal institutions and ask surviving family members of the subject in question—sometimes more than a few times. And you have to consult with documents in out-of-the-way places. The latter sometimes means borrowing someone’s truck—or hopping into a stranger’s—and carrying a pocket knife along with your laptop, just to be sure you’re going to be okay.
“Perhaps there is an archive—just not one in an official, state-sanctioned place, such as a university, museum, or library.”
How do I research and write about my subject when there’s no archive? Sometimes you don’t yet have access to the archive, so you have to know how to ask. You have to be there at the right time and the right place and the right day and ask the right person. (Surely, not that guy? Yup, that guy.) Sometimes it means drinking a Guinness for breakfast because that was what was offered to you, and you don’t want to be rude, and you were never one to back down from a challenge. Then it means waiting until you’re headed towards being more than just a bit tipsy, even after the whole omelette you ate for good measure, and then it means asking right then for permission to access files. Who knows if you slurred your words when you asked? That’s not on record anywhere. Sometimes that’s what it takes to gain confidence, and not just your confidence to ask for permission, but also his: he needs to know you’re a worthy candidate for permission. Drinking a whole Guinness at 9 a.m. apparently qualifies you.
How do I research and write about my subject when there’s no archive? At other times, the archive is stashed away in a basement, hidden from prying eyes, waiting for daylight—or perhaps, you tell yourself optimistically, waiting for you. And accessing it takes earning trust, but not by drinking beer this time. No, this time it means taking all kinds of precautions: reading documents, preparing documents, writing documents, rewriting those documents, and rewriting them again. It means signing contracts, and trying to do all manner of intellectual calisthenics to be sure you’re in top form to handle this one just right. Oh, you’ll still get it wrong—or, at least, your copy editor will—but it won’t matter. It seems you were doomed not to get this one right. When you work with an archive that no one even knew existed, a misstep can happen in spite of your best efforts.
“It seems you were doomed not to get this one right. When you work with an archive that no one even knew existed, a misstep can happen in spite of your best efforts.”
How do I research and write about my subject when there’s no archive? Maybe the archive isn’t a tangible thing, such as a document or photograph. My dear colleague and friend, TL Cowan, researches cabaret. A performance is an elusive thing, but someone’s memories about one night can help you reconstruct it; recollections about the scene tell you something about what a performer might have been trying to accomplish. Many witnesses recounted how a Kahnawake poetess at the turn of the century wore a stereotypical “Indian dress”—a short little buckskin number—before an audience of white men. Titillating, you might think, until you read the fiery tone of her lyrics and understand that where and how she performed her work added value and meaning to it. Then you realize she was giving these men unmitigated shit for their assumptions of superiority, and for the violence wrought upon Indigenous nations.
How do I research and write about my subject when there’s no archive? Consider archival deposits that may not seem to have anything to do with your subject—at least, not at first. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police files offer one example. Maybe you’re not interested in the RCMP. Perhaps they’re not exactly your cup of military tea. (I personally prefer espresso, if it can be had.) But sometimes you may want to drink that tea because of what you might learn. The RCMP, as it turns out, spied relentlessly on women activists in the 1970s. They have files upon files on feminist associations and meetings. You don’t have to like RCMP tactics, but reading their records will reveal a lot to you about these women activists. And, later on, you can still drink your espresso.
How do I research and write about my subject when there’s no archive? Have you considered different searches on the internet? Ah, the digital world, that mysterious place that consistently reminds me of the ocean, which washes up a wealth of material one day and is a seemingly flat, calm, and inscrutable surface the next. What lies underneath that surface? If you just bait the right hook, what will you draw up? Sometimes the hook dangles there, brings in nothing much—an old shoe, candy wrappers, and some algae. You suppose it’s possible you can reconstruct something from the old shoe. Then, at other times, you find a whale, and you have no idea how to fish for whales. Befriend it, perhaps? Yes, that’s better, and don’t turn your back on it while it frolics in the harbour. How did that whale get there? You download everything you find that day, because tomorrow it may swim away back into the ocean, and only surface again with a whole new set of research terms, whatever those might be.
“Ah, the digital world, that mysterious place that consistently reminds me of the ocean, which washes up a wealth of material one day and is a seemingly flat, calm, and inscrutable surface the next. What lies underneath that surface?”
By now, you’ve tried everything you know. What do you have left? You may have found material completely unrelated to your current subject. A postmark, say, that proclaims “God Bless America” or “Help Retarded Children.” You wonder: has anyone written about these postal slogans? Your imagination begins to suggest a future project.
Gather these materials. Delight in the wealth of all that’s left behind—from twigs to postmarks to letters. Leave your own trail, to form in effect a new archive—a gift for another generation of researchers. Finally, remember to call upon your own imagination. That has a peculiar and unaccountable wealth of its own. Don’t forget to visit that archive, ever.
Linda M. Morra is a professor of Canadian literature and Canadian Studies at Bishop’s University. Her book, Unarrested Archives (UTP 2014), was shortlisted for the 2015 Gabrielle Roy Prize in English; her edited edition of Jane Rule’s Taking My Life (2011) was a finalist for the LAMBDA prize (2012). She is the current president of the Quebec Writers’ Federation.
Photo credits: The National Archives (UK) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons (top banner); Linda M. Morra (postmarked envelope)