Meeting the Women in the Boxes: Reflections on Events in the Archives

Have you ever seen the stacks of an archives? In most cases, they are rows and rows of standard sized archival boxes. The only indication of the exciting content within are their labels: the Women’s Resource and Action Center records, the Rusty Barcelo papers, the Christine Grant papers. In the Iowa Women’s Archives (IWA), where I am a graduate assistant, most of the collections are from the twentieth century. So, many of the women whose affects are in our boxes are alive, kicking butt, taking names, and occasionally coming into the archives. For those of us who work there, this is a celebrity sighting.

Even more unusually, many of these women will come in together for an event. Earlier this year, donors to the Jewish Women in Iowa collection came together for a short symposium. A couple weeks ago the archives was involved in the even larger Iowa City Feminist Reunion. Women who were feminist activists in Iowa City in the mid-1960s – 1980s, came together again to catch up, to reminisce, and, hopefully, to donate some of their papers to the IWA. Although a staff member was on the planning committee, the idea and most of the implementation of the Feminist Reunion was thanks to a core group of “the feminists,” as we began to call them. This made the reunion more of a party than most archival events I’ve ever attended. While having fun, I think I learned some lessons about hosting an event at an archival institution.

Don’t skimp on planning. The women involved started planning the event years ago, and I first heard about it in 2016. Having a planning committee was a boon for this group, who needed to coordinate with several organizations, send invitations across the country, arrange for catering, and even book a softball field at a local park. For our part in the archives, we couldn’t over-prepare. We copied more donation forms than we needed, ordered extra t-shirts, and scheduled each student worker’s day into hour long increments. It’s better to be over than under prepared. If you never run out of needed forms and have a lot of staff there to deal with the unexpected, it makes it easier to do one other important thing.

Show your institution to its best advantage. The University of Iowa has a fantastic staff dedicated to the digital humanities and for this event we made use of it. A large interactive touch screen was used to help women identify themselves and their friends in photographs in the archives, a “One Button Studio” was open for women to easily record and then donate their stories, and every panel was recorded for future use. Even the little things help to make an impression on the visitors. Matching shirts for the staff, people posted at the doors, and a map detailing directions to nearby handicapped parking all contributed to creating a positive experience and positive image for the archives. An excellent presentation will help with press coverage as well.

Have a positive attitude. Yes, some things won’t go according to plan. More people came than we expected, someone used a permanent marker on a white board, etc etc, but mostly, everything went right. With plenty of planning and a positive attitude, these unexpected moments will be small parts of a larger good time.  And don’t forget that smiles are contagious. Your sincere good spirits will help set the tone for your event.

Be ready to socialize. Although I wouldn’t describe myself as having social anxiety, I can be a little shy with new people. Surrounded by the accomplished women who I have admired through their papers for years, I clammed up at first. I combatted this through persistence. Beyond working, I attended panel discussions and went to evening events during the reunion when I could, maximizing my chances that I’d be able to have a conversation with someone. Along the way, I learned about the Women’s Resource and Action Center, a part of campus I’d never been to before; heard stories about feminist activism in the 1970s, and, strangest of all, danced with mystery author Sara Paretsky.

Through serious preparation, a positive attitude, and a willingness to combat my own bashfulness, I had an excellent time at the Feminist Reunion, and I’m sure that the women reunited had an excellent time as well. Although I fit most of my 20 hour work week into the two days of the reunion, I felt the experience was worth it. Not only did I have several “celebrity sightings” with women who I only knew through their collections, but I will have an excellent example of what preparing for an event looks like when planning small events in the future. If you have a chance to participate in an event where you work, especially one on a larger scale, I’d encourage you to be as involved as you can. You never know what you might learn!

Photo licensed under creative commons: By Archives de l’État (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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