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Producing the Archival Body: An Interview with Jamie A. Lee, PhD

10 Mar 2021 10:00 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

It seemed fitting that, in preparing for an interview with Jamie A. Lee, PhD, about their new book Producing the Archival Body, I would feel an embodied manifestation of my own anticipation: a stomach-fluttering nervousness and excitement, a difficulty swallowing when considering whether or not I was up to the task, a chill in my blood when I decided I probably wasn’t.

Fortunately, Jamie A. Lee, a longtime interviewer, educator, and archivist quickly made clear that our conversation needn’t be stressful or fear-inducing: in situating our bodies -- even virtually -- they began the interview by envisioning that I’d flown to Tucson (in a non-covid world!) and that we were sitting in the unseasonably warm winter sunshine of a cafe, sipping lattes and listening to chirping birds. The physical sense of comfort and connection took hold right away to ease our discussion.

[Portrait of Jamie A. Lee, PhD, with a dark blue blazer and black-rimmed glasses. Courtesy of Jamie A. Lee]

Because Lee has been engaged in the work of documenting LGBTQ+ stories for years now, and because they have written about and presented on the Queer/ed Archival Metholodolgy extensively in recent years, Producing the Archival Body is in many ways a culmination of those experiences and efforts. “The book interrogates how power circulates and is deployed in archival contexts in order to build critical understandings of how deeply archives influence and shape the production of knowledges and human subjectivities” (https://ischool.arizona.edu/people/jamie-lee). The chapters interweave theoretical application with personal anecdotes and subject interviews, and I found myself often returning to the personal stories to understand the depth and richness of the theory through those connective tissues. What follows are a few of our discussion points.

KW: Can you tell me about the journey this book has taken from dissertation to book?

JL: It's been interesting to be finishing the book, in the midst of the pandemic. It feels so good to have that out in the world. Of course, it's so nerve racking. My writing feels so personal, like your heart’s on your sleeve, and you're so vulnerable. So, this is the first time I’ve been interviewed about the book. And the first time I’ve ever written a book; I came to the academy older (I turned 50 last year, in the pandemic).

“With each inclusion and exclusion, archivists have the power to develop the historical narratives, records, and collections, as well as the archival institution.” (p. 68)

One of the starting points for the book was to think about: what relationships does the archives have to humans? I started thinking through the body, bodily functions, and human subjectivities and all that that entails to consider the archives as archival body. We each have techniques, embodied techniques, that we use in our everyday lives. What are they and how do they carry into our work as archivists. And as archivists, we have all of these [archival] practices, but sometimes it feels more like we’re putting widgets into cogs on assembly lines because we can do them without critically thinking and reflecting upon what we’re doing and why. We’re not asked to pause and to see the big picture of the humans and the many complexities that make the records and the archives, and make the ideas of memory meaningful, and be important and be valued. These are the issues at the center of my work, including not only my published manuscript but also my ongoing research projects, multimedia projects, and public-facing digital humanities projects. I am interested in how to recognize, acknowledge, and work with nuance and complexity. 

In 2008, Lee founded the Arizona LGBTQ Storytelling Project, Arizona’s first LGBTQ archives. Since 2011, this project has expanded into the Arizona Queer Archives, AQA, which has become an archival laboratory of sorts where community members and graduate/undergraduate students work together on building the archives. It is in these collaborative spaces where Lee continues to develop and apply a Queer/ed Archival Methodology, Q/M, to support archivists through rapidly changing information environments and the implications — socially, culturally, and technologically — of these changes.


[Arizona Queer Archive "Made for Flight" Kites Display. Courtesy of Jamie A. Lee]

When, in 2008, I initially founded the Arizona LGBTQ Storytelling Project, what is now the AQA, I wanted to know “what do I have to do to make this the right way, to do a good job?” What I found was that the “right” ways felt like they were doing more harm to the communities -- and as a part of the community, it was my role to push back at that and to make it better. I learned so much along the way about my own assumptions, and really tried to pay attention to the relationships I have with people. I wanted to demonstrate responsibility and respect for the people I was working with. If I didn’t have that, basically I was aligning with what we, as archival studies scholars, often critique of the institutional mainstream archives.

When I started my PhD program, Professor Susan Stryker arrived at my university as the new Director of the Institute for LGBT Studies. She came with an archival background after having directed the GLBT Historical Society and History Museum in San Francisco. I took her seminar on Somatechnics and the Technologies of the Body. It was in this course that everything I thought about archives kind of blew apart. That was where I began to realize that the body is so central to everything we do. While I wrote my dissertation, I drew from somatechnics literatures, queer theorists, and also from Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s 25 Projects central to decolonizing methodologies to develop the Queer/ed Archival Methodology. I really wanted to both center temporality and bodies. How do archives influence people? How do we see interconnections between people in the archives? 

Those were the initial questions that I was building upon in moving the dissertation to the book project. The biggest thing, for me, is always the stories and the storytelling part of this work. That’s why I started each chapter with stories and put myself out there personally to say, “This matters to me because these are my histories too.” I’m a part of all these things, and there’s no way to discount the body and to break apart the body from each of these records. 

KW: Who did you envision reading this book when you were writing it? And how would you teach it in your classroom?

JL: I could see community archivists picking up the book and being inspired. I’d want them to recognize that theory is emerging in their own everyday work within their home communities. Students in archival studies, in gender and women’s studies, in rhetoric, maybe in digital humanities would be able to find information here to think about the role the archives plays in all these areas -- maybe in understanding composition or how the stories come together. 


[Selfie photo of Hope Herr-Cardillo processing Jay Kyle Petersen’s Collection, 2017. Courtesy of Jamie A. Lee]

In my own classroom, I could see teaching a couple of chapters, especially the one on the finding aid [Chapter 2, which includes an extensive section on reimagining the place of archivist’s personal reflections in the archiving process]. The postmodern turn in archival studies is still important in today’s classrooms. In the book, I considered incorporating posthumanism as heuristic, a tool, to inquire into the relationships between archives and humans. I know a lot of students are interested in thinking about things like the etymology of terms, what do those terms mean when we bring them to bear on our own collections and collecting practices?

“...archivists rarely return to finding aids to attend to time, the shifting bodies of records creators and bodies of knowledge, and any descriptive mistakes or needed revisions....Therefore, I understand that developing the conversational aspect of the finding aid is a way for the AQA to embody its participatory ethos.” (p. 58)


KW: That view seems like it’s part of the idea that we build the world we want to live in -- at least as archivists and archival studies educators. 

JL: Yes. We have more power to do good than we think we do. We think there are so many gatekeepers around who aren’t going to let us do what we want or need to do, but we just need someone to say “Yes, I’ll do it.” Someone said to me 12 or 13 years ago that since I had the filmmaking equipment and local elder LGBTQ people were dying, I should collect their stories. I said “yes.” And that was how I started Arizona’s first LGBTQ archives. We have a lot of power to collect and build our histories and to shape all of the many nuanced narratives that don’t often get a chance to be seen. 

KW: Who are some of the most significant influences on your work?

JL: When I first read Jasbir Puar’s book Terrorist Assemblages, Elizabeth Freeman’s Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, and Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination -- those three books knocked my socks off in my first semester of my doctoral studies. Professor Frank Galarte worked closely with me in this first semester to challenge my assumptions and grow my ideas of the archives and what they can do. I’ve always been curious about time, space, and the understanding of our bodies in that time and space, and where that all overlaps with archives. Those three books really opened up doors for me to just try on ideas and noodle my way through it.

KW: How would you characterize your methodology?

Lee has written extensively on Queer/ed Methodology, which informs much of their work and this book.

JL: I bring in a queer methodology; not just a queer theoretical lens, but a way to use a queer methodology to also suggest storytelling as a method. It goes beyond the act of collecting the story to the act of telling the story. I think that we should pay attention to thinking about what stories these records will tell, and then put the records into the collection in that way. It’s a way to understand relationality.

“Like both haunting and decolonizing as temporal methods of producing and consuming archives, queering provides a means for reimagining normative assumptions within archives and about the bodies of knowledges therein." (p. 78)

KW: What do you want readers, current and future, to know about Producing the Archival Body?

JL: The book is similar to my own personal trajectory in the archives, including me entering the archives as a non-academic social justice activist. So we can see the ways we move through and have different journeys when we’re working in archives. I would like our students to learn in the classroom that we’re all wrestling with these same ideas, and that we can make different inroads and interventions. I’d like our students to have the confidence to push for social justice and make change in whatever archives they’re working in. 

There’s a quote from one of my earlier documentary films that has stuck with me. Pastor Anita Hill was ordained by St. Paul Reformation Lutheran Church; she was a lesbian and would not divorce her partner or be celibate. At her ordination, we interviewed Bishop Krister Stendahl who said, “The drop makes a hole in the stone, not by its weight, but by constantly dropping.” Thinking about social justice, it’s not like one big thing is going to change it. But it has to be all of these little drops continuing to drop. How can we spread this urgency to make change? Even if it's small and incremental, it could be lasting. So how do we do it?


Kristen Whitson

Kristen Whitson has a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and she has worked in digital preservation, community and indigenous archives, and LGBTQ+ archives. She is currently a Program Assistant with Recollection Wisconsin.

Jamie A. Lee is Assistant Professor of Digital Culture, Information, and Society in the School of Information – Arizona’s iSchool – at the University of Arizona, where their research and teaching attend to critical archival theory and methodologies, multimodal media-making contexts, storytelling, and bodies. For more information about Lee’s research, visit their website: www.thestorytellinglab.io


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