Serendipity and artistry have guided Afsaneh Najmabadi in her quest to make the material culture of women in Qajar Iran (c. 1796-1925) available to anyone with an internet browser. Soon after her decision to build the archive Women’s Worlds in Qajar Iran, her mother passed away. As Najmabadi organized her parents’ personal effects, she found letters exchanged between her father’s father and his aunt over an inheritance. This led her to dig further into her own family’s history during Qajar Iran and the discovery of a veritable treasure trove of documentation in the neighborhood where she grew up:

There are twenty-five volumes of registry books…On my father’s side of the family, male members going back several generations were the local, religious notables with whom local people would register births, deaths, marriage, divorce but also all kinds of social interactions such as water disputes, deeds of sale. This was in the late 19th, early 20th century in a period when there were no formal governmental structures that did this kind of registry. All these aspects of life, whether in big cities, small towns or rural areas were entrusted to the local, trusted elderly, especially those with religious training.

These volumes are not in my holding. Basically the grandfather of my [paternal] grandmother is a very well known figure in the neighborhood where I was born and grew up. And he is buried in a mausoleum there and within it is a library where these volumes are kept. Ten years ago, several institutions in Iran started digitizing documents like these, and they went to my grandfather’s mausoleum and asked permission to digitize all twenty-five volumes. That was a huge bonus for us. I went, kind of sheepishly, with my laptop to see the family member who oversees the mausoleum to see if he would give me a table of contents of all the materials there. Instead, he gave me 8 DVDS with all the digitized material. This was shortly before I started WWQI and so it is one of the first collections to make it to the website. You can actually write the social history of this neighborhood—which bears his name—by reading the twenty five volumes of the registry.

Will Najmabadi be the one writing that history? She demurs. Though she plans on immersing herself in the WWQI website during an upcoming sabbatical, Najmabadi’s ambition is that her graduate students will make the most use of the site.  Najmabadi encourages her students to do multi-genre history and not to depend solely on one form of record–documents, works of art, photographs, etc.—rather to juxtapose these multimedia in their approaches to reconstructing social history.