Ephemeral Material: Queering the Archive

By Alana Kumbier. Sacramento, CA: Litwin, 2014. 266 pp. $35.00 (paperback). ISBN 978-1-936117-51-2.

In Ephemeral Material: Queering the Archive, Alana Kumbier, Critical Social Inquiry and Digital Pedagogy Librarian at Hampshire College, explores how queer people build archival collections in spaces other than conventional archives and how queer archival practices inform conventional approaches to archiving. Throughout the book the author uses the word “queer” to denote “a disruptive, transformational, or oppositional practice designed to challenge normalizing systems and structures” rather than as a synonym for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) (3-4). The author writes that her use of queer is “informed strongly by queer activist discourses, and somewhat (but much less so) by scholarship in queer theory” (ibid.).

Ephemeral Material was the author’s dissertation and is the fifth book published in the Litwin Books Series on Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies. The book is divided into two sections. The first section “analyzes two representations of archives on film” and includes chapter 1, Inventing History: The Watermelon Woman and Archive Activism; and chapter 2, Haunting Archives: Memory, Disability, and Archival Spaces in Liebe Perla. These chapters explore how “documentation projects respond to the problem of missing archival records by drawing attention to their absence and developing alternative documentary strategies and forms” (124). In the second section of the book the author examines three case studies of queer archiving projects, and includes chapter 3, Archiving Drag King Communities from the Ground Up; chapter 4, The Collaborative Archive: Aliza Shapiro’s DATUM; and chapter 5, Queer Zines and Archival Pedagogies. In chapter 3, the author describes a critical archival practice she calls archiving from the ground up, which she developed as a response to “the historic exclusion and under-documentation of queer cultures in archival collections” (124). She describes this concept as “a collaborative, participatory archiving practice. In archiving from the ground up, archivists work with members of the communities and cultures we hope to document, instead of creating projects or building collections on their behalf” (125). In relation to archiving from the ground up, she discusses the purpose, methodology and challenges she encountered while completing two archival projects with Cristina Hernandez Trotter, the New Orleans Drag King Collection Project and the International Drag King Community Extravaganza (IDKE). In the conclusion to chapter 3, the author notes that “when archiving from the ground up, we transform the archival power relations: we have the opportunity to explicitly identify – and share – the power to represent, to define, to describe, and to organize materials in the archive as part of our practice” (151).[1] In chapter 4, the author contemplates Aliza Shapiro’s archival art installation, DATUM, in which the artist invited visitor-participants to organize and display her photograph work from past to present, and argues that the installation, “offers models for participatory engagement with existing collections” (34). In relation to DATUM, she also considers the concepts of queer temporality, queer collaborations and archival time (159-173). Lastly, in chapter 5, the author reflects on queer zines and the Queer Zine Archive Project (QZAP), and builds on Alison Piepemeier’s theorization of feminist zine pedagogies (197). She maintains that queer zines “matter in the production of a diverse queer historical record, and invite others to participate in the project of making and preserving this record” (ibid.).

Ephemeral Material is written in a combination of descriptive and narrative styles and includes first-person accounts of Kumbier’s collaboration on several of the archival projects included in the book as well as an examination of ideas and theories put forward by scholarly writers, such as Judith Halberstam and Anne Cvetkovich. The book’s intended audience includes “archivists (both professionally-educated and grassroots, community-educated practitioners), artists, activists and scholars (in queer studies, women’s and gender studies, disability studies and library and information science)” (2). This is an engaging book that considers not only theoretical ideas and archival projects but also encourages praxis (or reflective action) aimed at transforming the status quo of archival practice. In her words, “we can use the examples in this book to inspire and inform action, to create our own documentation projects, to critically engage, access, and collaborate with established archives, and to bridge gaps between queer and archival theoretical discourses – to find ways of making these conversations relevant to each other, and to understand why they matter” (35).

Goldwynn Lewis

Ottawa, Canada

[1]For a recent Canadian example of the complex power relations involved in creating archival collections see Fontaine v. Canada (Attorney General), 2014 ONSC 4585 (CanLII), http://canlii.ca/t/g8hd3