Searching for Women in the Icelandic Archives

Image from  the Independent .

Image from the Independent.

In Searching for Women in the Archives: Collecting Private Archives of Women, Bogadóttir addresses the fact that not only are women underrepresented in archives, but it can be difficult to locate their information, even if it exists somewhere in the records. This problem is clearly stated in the article and is significant in the field of library and information science (LIS).

The limitations of the study are stated: The research that informs this article is from the writer’s experiences collecting individual women’s archives in Iceland, specifically (where, interestingly, this activity is defined by law) but this study can be used as a model across contexts to examine why and how women are being excluded from public records.

Bogadóttir has several cited articles on archives and is a City Archivist at the Reykjavik Municipal Archives, so she is a credible authority on this topic. Her article is clearly written and organized, and is unbiased despite the fact that one might assume her to be interested in protecting the reputation of her employer, whom she is studying for this article. She presents a fair examination of a possibly contentious issue and takes a curious, unbiased approach to her research.

Bogadóttir states that it “is not always obvious where to find information about women in the public records” (p. 66) and says that this is what lead her to examine where women are (or are not) making contact with these systems. One sample finding that is particularly interesting, and that demonstrates her ability to identify multiple complex factors contributing to women’s under-representation in the public archives, is:

“Women are more modest and not confident enough about the importance of their documents. They want to be anonymous to anyone but their family, while men want their name to be remembered... Women’s archives can reveal family secrets or information that was meant for their eyes only. One interviewee also mentioned that women tend to distrust authorities more than men.” (p. 71)

Bogadóttir explores her topic through a study using multi/mixed-methods (both qualitative and quantitative) including interviews, observation, and primary sources such as laws, regulations, catalogs, polls and surveys (p. 66). Considering that her topic was one national archive, her sample size is sufficient: in addition to drawing from her relevant personal and professional experience, she examined Icelandic law and interviewed 13 current and former municipal and women’s archivists, and gender scholars, historians, and teachers. These data-gathering methods are appropriate to the solution of the stated problem, and the conclusions, substantiated by the evidence, are presented clearly.

Much of LIS collection management discusses librarians creating collections with funding from the library or its organization, or from grants. This article instead examines a situation where perhaps archivists and/or librarians perform outreach and/or proactive procurement of items for the archives, but mostly items are spontaneously contributed by the government (public records), individuals, or estates. Roughly 80-90% of the archive in Iceland consists of public records, with the remaining 10-20% contributed by societies, private companies and individuals (p. 66).

Bogadóttir provides contextual information by citing previous research by feminist scholars who claimed that women are being erased from the public record; this is relevant to her study because she says that searching for women in Iceland’s archives produces few results. Part of the purpose of Iceland’s archive, as stated in their legislation, is to preserve the nation’s history as well as records of societies and individuals; unfortunately, interviews in this study “indicate that in some cases the archivists are the bottleneck, keeping more women’s records from being included in the archives” and “Archives of children, immigrants and LGBT people are almost non-existent” (p. 68). This article posits that collections (including archives) should be “neutral” (p. 65) and up to international standards, and that if there is an imbalance in the collection, the librarian or archivist should seek to address that. However, it also acknowledges that this is (unfortunately) often not what happens in practice.

Right before the conclusion, the writer presents three suggested assignments for students, which is unique, and useful considering that the book it was published in is intended for educators. The balanced and nuanced but clear conclusion determines (fairly) that there is “no single reason why” so few women’s archives have been preserved and offers a few possible causes, as well as proposed further research possibilities (p. 3). Overall, this article covers much information, succinctly, and provides a thorough analysis of a particular context that will be useful for further thinking and practice in similar but different contexts, going forward.

Bogadóttir, S. (2013). Searching for Women in the Archives: Collecting Private Archives of Women. De Jong, S., & Koevoets, S. (eds.). Teaching Gender with Libraries and Archives: The Power of Information (Vol. 10). ATGENDER and Central European University Press.

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