Power of the Word II
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Between Politics and Culture: The History and Activity of the Women's Documentation Center in Bologna
by Annamaria Tagliavini

Considering that without documents women have no history, and without history women will be accorded little respect in the present or in the future, therefore collections of archives, family papers, oral histories, and artifacts should be preserved to document and to honor the contributions of women, and information about women should include statistics, directories of women's organizations, and bibliographies of research on women.

The above is a quotation from the final statement issued at the end of an important world conference "Women, Information and the Future" that was held in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1994. The next quotation is from the draft resolution of the "Know How Conference on the World of Women's Information" that was held in Amsterdam, in August 1998:

We, the three hundred women from eighty-three countries and seven continents gathered together, represent the global community of information specialists, librarians, archivists, academics, politicians and activists in the field of women's information. The mission of the Know How Conference is to improve the visibility and accessibility of women's information on the global and local level. This includes information for and by immigrant women, migrant workers, refugees and lesbians. . . . Women of all nations should work together to share information and support each other's work to document the world of women.

Boston and Amsterdam were two crucial milestones in the construction of a global network of women's documentation centers, archives, and libraries—soon to become an international non-governmental organization supporting women's culture all over the world. There are now over two thousand documentation centers, in areas ranging from the Fiji Islands to Surinam, from Botswana to Kazakhstan. Taken together, they have collected an enormous amount of published and unpublished material which represents an extraordinary cultural heritage, collected from struggles against every kind of discrimination in the last century.

The oldest women's library is the Francesca Bonnemaison, founded in Barcelona, in 1909. Then the Fawcett appeared, in London, in 1926; the Marguerite Durand, in Paris, in 1931; and the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger, in Boston, in 1945. My own library, the Women's Documentation Center Library in Bologna, was born later, during the so-called second wave of feminism in the seventies, and it became an active partner in this global network from its first steps. Its umbrella organization, the Orlando Association, was named after the protagonist of the eponymous Virginia Woolf novel. It is an interesting example of how an independent women's institution, functioning at the national level, can develop a policy of international exchange and support for women's organizations in developing countries and in conflict areas like Algeria, Albania and Kosovo in the former Yugoslavia, and Palestine.

To begin at the beginning: In 1979, a group of feminists active in the women's movement founded the Orlando Association, which decided to develop a Women's Documentation Center and Library in Bologna as one of its first projects. All of Orlando's programs are designed to combine research with political activities in the context of an organization run by women for women. Its mission is to build a public women's institution that can:

  • Assure the memory and duration of women's symbolic cultural productions and research.
  • Collect, preserve, and share documents and resources dedicated to women's information and cultural production.
  • Establish political and cultural networks—face-to-face, long distance, and virtual—among women at the local, national, and global levels.
  • Rethink the relationship between personal life and political activity.

The largest part of Orlando's funding comes from contracts with the Bologna city government, but our administration has remained entirely independent of all political parties and institutions. We also get additional funding for specific projects from the regional government, the European Union, and the University of Bologna.

Orlando's activities are organized into four programs. I am responsible for the Italian National Women's Library (the largest one of its kind existing in our country), which contains more than 25,000 books and 350 periodicals, all written by women from different cultures and in different languages. It includes special collections like the Sofia Collection, which consists of more than 3,000 multicultural books for little girls (many of them in Chinese, Arabic, etc.); and the historical collection, which reconstructs the historical and cultural heritage of Italian women from past centuries in many fields including literature, poetry, art, music, and theater. We collect more or less 150 doctoral theses finished every year.

To document, increase, and spread women's writing and women's cultural productions in general must be considered crucial goals. In Western Europe, censorship of women may particularly mean marginalization of and discrimination against "new" women citizens, such as immigrants and refugees. We are faced with a curious paradox: according to recent Italian studies, many women are now at the top levels of management at publishing companies. Women are also great consumers of books, and make up a considerable percentage of the Italian community of writers. But even under such favorable conditions, it seems difficult to safeguard a gendered point of view. Yet such material is crucial if we are to develop new social models and guarantee equal access to cultural opportunities for women from all social classes.

A second program at Orlando is the Server Donne, the only women's Internet server in Italy, which produces and distributes a lot of information and gives free Internet access to an increasing number of organizations and individual women. Our server and our website are crucial tools, keeping us in touch with women's organizations all over the world and helping us to make the transition from being simply consumers of the net to becoming producers of information for women about women. We also have the Internet Tearoom, a women's public space created for free navigation and training in the use of new technologies. It is especially dedicated to the new generations of young women who would like very much to become cyberfeminists.

A third program, the Hannah Arendt School of Politics, is a project funded by the European Union, with the task of bridging the gap now existing between women and politics through specific training, and to introduce a gendered perspective and feminist interpretation into the "neutral" male game of politics.

The entire structure of the Orlando Association works to disseminate women's cultures and political thoughts and to establish connections among different and sometimes fragmented women's realities. This involves paying attention to the documentation of both our present situation and past traditions, as well as to the promotion of different means of expression: art, music, writing, cinema, theater, the visual arts. Orlando offers meeting rooms to women's groups as well as consulting services and training. It nurtures and fosters feminist and women's organizations of psychologists, writers, scientists, and historians at both the local and the global level. It also offers internationally recognized support to women's groups living under oppressive regimes through a fourth program, Women in Difficult Places.

From the beginning, we have wanted to pay attention to the realities of women living in difficult situations. In 1988, we began a major program to foster the growth and development of women's documentation centers in conflict areas, devoted to feminist politics of peace and conflict resolution. We began in the Palestine/Israeli area, where we supported the growth of the Nablus Women's Center coordinated by the famous Palestinian writer Sahar Khalifa. To strengthen our relationship with the newborn center, we organized an intense exchange of experiences involving visiting and hosting women, and assisted in training, program development, and fund-raising. And at the same time we also developed our relationship with Women in Black, in Jerusalem. We supported meetings between the two organizations to discuss different ideas and practices of peace and women's role in the peace process. Years later, in 1994, we helped set up a Women's Library in the University of Birzheit under a "Med Campus project" grant from the EU. In that case, we organized a training course for librarians with special competence in gender issues. Our ability to act on both a political and at a "technical" level gives us flexibility in program development and fund-raising.

In the nineties, our areas of activity expanded to the former Yugoslavia, where together with another Italian organization named Public Space of Women, we developed a new project "Women's Bridges across Boundaries," collaborating with three local women's centers that have different tasks and goals: Isidora is a women's cultural institution, in Pancev; Amica is a consulting center, in Tuzla, for women who suffered sexual assault during the war; and Mikia, in Prishtina, is a counseling center that supports women and children with problems arising from violence, whether inside or outside the family.

More recently, our Association has become the coordinator of a general "Women's Program for Albania" under a grant from the Minister of Social Affairs of the Italian government. We are working with two documentation centers in Tirana: the Reflektione Center and the Independent Forum of Albanian Women, which is coordinated by Diana Çuli. We are also projecting a center on reproductive health, sexuality, and prostitution in Valona, in partnership with various non-governmental organizations.

Our training programs use a standard curriculum and are in two residential stages: one in Italy and the other in the country of the women with whom we are working. In order to welcome women from our partner organizations, as well as refugee women, we recently rented a small apartment to use as a guesthouse for both long and short stays.

But developing new women's centers means more than training. Other important activities are necessary: fund-raising, cooperation in modeling institutions, discussion of experiences, and cultural production. We strongly believe, in fact, that women's kinship comprehends all aspects of life and well-being.

Algeria has been another focus of our program Women in Difficult Places. Years ago, we were among the first in Italy to invite key figures like Assia Djebar or Khalida Messaudi, giving them the opportunity to present their writings and their struggle for freedom to a large audience. Algeria remains one of our top priorities. Now we are working on the development of a Documentation Center there, which is named DRIFA, an acronym that in French means: Développement, Recherche et Information des Femmes Algeriennes; and in Arabic means, "highly educated woman." This center has been projected as a public space for women, including a library to collect and distribute women's writings and to preserve the culture of Algerian women, a space for conferences and seminars, and the requisite facilities to publish a newsletter.

DRIFA emerged from a partnership between the Orlando Association in Italy and the Algerian association RACHDA, again an acronym standing for "Rassemblement contre la hogra (injustice) et pour les droits des Algeriennes," but also meaning in Arabic, "the woman who sees things clearly." RACHDA, chaired by Khalida Messaudi herself, has more than 1,500 members. Orlando is dedicated to setting up networks that will operate in the Mediterranean area in a broad sense, including the Maghreb and Mashreq.

In order to help develop the women's centers mentioned above, we successfully applied for funding from different sources, including specific European Union directorates (either for equal opportunities or in thematic areas) and the Italian government. In order to work at a more global level, we will look to the World Bank and UNESCO as possible sources of funding. We must push them very hard to allocate more financial resources for women all over the world.

Even as we do more global work, we can also see that the political changes of the last ten years mandate new fields of inquiry for us in Italy. We must consider not only how to include immigrant and refugee women and their needs in the perspective and activities of the Orlando Association, but, perhaps more importantly, how to make it not only an Italian feminist organization that works with women in other countries but a real multicultural women's institution.

Annamaria Tagliavini is an activist and Director of the library at the Centro di Documentazione delle Donne in Bologna, a major Italian feminist organization.