October 12 is #AskAnArchivist Day to raise public awareness about the importance of archives and historical records. Since its founding, Women’s Learning Partnership set out to preserve a vast collection of primary source materials about the experiences of women leaders from the Global South. In 2021 WLP began creating the Women Making History Archives (WMHA) to make the records of individual women leaders available to activists and scholars around the world. In recognition of the Day, WLP interviewed Jessica Molander, Program Associate for Archives and Knowledge Management, about the Women Making History project and her work as an archivist at WLP.
WLP: Can you share what the Women Making History Archives project is?
Jessica: It's no secret that women are largely left out of the historical record. Particularly women from the Global South, with all of their amazing contributions to the global women's movement, do not have their stories told. There is almost no information about these women available online to scholars and activists.
WLP's Women Making History Archives will work to combat this by making widely and freely accessible thousands of records from women leaders from the Global South. It will serve as a rich digital database of letters, photographs, books, articles, art, diaries, video recordings, audio recordings, and more, that will help show how women have shaped history and society today. We want the Archives to serve as a valuable learning resource and, hopefully, inspire the next generation of women leaders.
The project really has three components. First, we want to preserve historical records of women leaders, particularly those in the women’s rights movements around the world over the last several decades. Second, we want to increase international awareness of women leaders from the Global South and their impact on the global women's rights movement. And third, we want to provide local women's rights organizations with the skills and tools to preserve their records.
WLP: What was the inspiration behind this project?
Jessica: Archives and preservation hold a special place in WLP’s history. When WLP President Mahnaz Afkhami was forced into exile from Iran in 1978, she had to leave everything behind–books, letters, photographs, all of her academic work. She really experienced firsthand what such a loss can do to an individual, but also how it impacts an entire community. When we lose our records, we lose a part of ourselves, a part of our heritage. Our identities are made up of past experiences and our future choices are impacted by our memories.
WLP: Who will be featured in the Women Making History Archives?
Jessica: The Archives are going to feature women leaders from the Global South. That is where we see a real gap in the historical record. We began this project with Mahnaz and are soon expanding it to other women leaders like Asma Khader of Jordan, Thoraya Obaid of Saudi Arabia, and Rabéa Naciri of Morocco. The project will continue to grow from there into what we envision as a large database filled with a wealth of knowledge on women leaders from the Global South.
WLP: What are some of the challenges to creating an archive like this?
Jessica: Well, of course I face the challenges that every archivist faces. There's never enough staff, time, storage or resources to perfectly preserve every important record in the world. We, as archivists, all loath the passage of time and the tough decisions of what to save. I think with this particular project, all of these challenges are exacerbated with the political, environmental, and social unrest that is happening in much of the Global South. It just makes the ticking of the clock sound much louder. But if anything, these challenges push me, and archivists everywhere, to find creative solutions to achieving our goals.
WLP: What does a typical day look like for you working on the Women Making History Archives?
Jessica: Like most archivists, I don't really have typical days. Some days I am waist deep in sorting through photographs, I mean I am literally sitting on the office floor surrounded by photographs to be sorted, digitized, cataloged, added to the Archives, and preserved. Which, incidentally, is my favorite way to be. Other days, I am trudging through spreadsheets of metadata while researching records, writing policies and answering reference requests. I love that everyday is different from the last and I truly enjoy every aspect of my work.
WLP: After spending so much time with an array of her records, do you have a favorite video or interview with Mahnaz?
Jessica: That is a tough one. Maybe my favorite is her interview with Tim Sebastian on BBC HardTalk where she speaks about the events of the Iranian Revolution and her own experience with exile. There's also Mahnaz’s interview with Mahtab Kosari that appeared on Voice of America in which Mahnaz speaks more in depth on her childhood and her time in Iran. And there is of course the PBS Destination America interview where both Mahnaz and her sister Farah were interviewed. These interviews all give a wonderfully unique and personal perspective to historical events.