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 librariessoon 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of published and unpublished material which represents an extraordinary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 networksface-to-face,
long distance, and virtualamong women at the local, national,
and global levels.
- Rethink the relationship between personal life and political
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
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
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
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.