In the Archives
BY John D'Emilio ON October 19, 2016
“In the archives.” It’s a phrase that those of us who do history – whether as a profession or a passion or both – have used for a long time. It sometimes serves as shorthand to say that we’re doing research. But it is also often meant literally. “In the archives” is where we have gone to read the letters, diaries, memos, reports, and so many other documents from the past that are the raw material for writing histories of almost anything.
Of course, in the era of the web, much archival material is relocating to hard drives and cloud servers. Many archives are digitizing at least some of their collections, and many individuals and organizations place the written documents they produce on websites as well. The result is that a day spent “in the archives” can now mean a day spent with one’s tablet, at a coffee shop, working one’s way through digitized records of the past.
Still, even with these revolutionary technological changes, the physical reality of archives as places that house the records of the past remains important. And this seems particularly true for the LGBTQ community. The generations of “wearing a mask” and having to pass as heterosexual, of invisibility and enforced silencing of our own voices, and of oppressive distortions about our lives in the mainstream media have all made collecting and preserving our historical records an act of liberation.
The first LGBT community-based archival effort that I am aware of was the Lesbian Herstory Archives, founded in New York in 1974 by lesbian members of the Gay Academic Union. Forty-plus years later, it still exists, and it occupies its own building in Brooklyn, New York. The founders of the LHA made it their mission to spread the word about the importance of archiving for our community’s liberation, and in the 1970s and 1980s core members like Joan Nestle and Deborah Edel traveled widely giving public presentations meant to inspire and energize audiences. The impulse to create community history projects and archives spread over the next decades. It is not an easy thing to succeed at, since it requires a certain amount of technical knowledge and skill. It’s also not the kind of thing that is easily funded, since many funders just don’t “get” that history is a tool for fighting homophobia. Nevertheless, when the Lesbian and Gay Archives Roundtable (LAGAR) of the Society of American Archivists published a new edition of their Lavender Legacies Guide in 2012, they were able to locate by my count about twenty archives created and sustained by LGBT communities around the United States. And, the list of mainstream institutions that have developed LGBT collections, such as universities and state historical societies, is much, much longer. Places like Cornell University, the Schomburg Library in Harlem, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Southern California have made substantial commitments to developing LGBTQ archival collections.
To me, this is all very exciting and fills me with hope. In 1974, when I first began doing the research for what became Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities (1983), except for a short visit to the Institute for Sex Research (commonly known as The Kinsey Institute), none of my research was conducted “in the archives.” I visited the homes of activists, and worked my way through file cabinets and boxes that they kept in their studies, living rooms, basements, and garages. I visited the offices of homophile groups that still existed and explored their organizational records. In the case of the New York Mattachine Society, I was told one day that it would be closing at the end of the month, and I was welcome to take their office files if it would be useful to me! Needless to say, I responded affirmatively, and for the next several years two four-drawer file cabinets of Mattachine records filled one of the closets in my apartment. For a while, I didn’t have to travel far to be “in the archives.” But the experience serves as a reminder of how precarious the survival of our historical records has been.
While I am very pleased that there are more and more mainstream institutions that are committing themselves to preserving our history, I have a special affection for our community-based archives. They remain near and accessible to the community they are a part of and that they exist to serve. Creating and sustaining them are themselves acts of community building. And the materials that they house very much reflect that intimate connection to the local. Much of what is housed in these archives are not the records of the rich and the famous, the big headline-makers. Instead, LGBT archives tend to have the materials of local activists and community members, people whose work and lives may not have captured the attention of Fox News or The New York Times, but whose lives and actions make up the substance of the past. Many of the books that have been written on queer history over the last two decades might not have been possible without the existence of these community institutions and the stories contained in their many shelves of acid-free boxes.
The Gerber/Hart Library and Archives in Chicago is one of those community-based institutions. Founded in 1981, it came into being in part through the work of Gregory Sprague, a graduate student and activist who began doing research in the 1970s on queer Chicago history and who was part of the early national network of folks exploring LGBT history. While Gerber/Hart contains material from the Midwest generally, especially periodicals, the heart of its archival collection consists of the personal papers and organizational records generated in the greater Chicago area. Some collections are small, consisting of a single acid-free box; others are massive, spanning half a century and filling over a hundred boxes. The overwhelming majority of the collections contain materials from the 1960s forward, but there are a few that reach back into the earlier decades of the twentieth century.
Lately, I’ve been spending a couple of afternoons a week exploring some of these collections, trying to get a sense of the range of material and what it can reveal. Call me a history nerd, but there is something very exciting about finding a document that suddenly gives me a new understanding of where we’ve come from and how we’ve gotten here. For all the research and writing I have done, there is still much to be found that will make me smarter, make me grasp the world around me better, and help me think better about how to make change in the world.
Over the next months, I plan to share in occasional blog posts discoveries that I’ve stumbled upon in the Gerber/Hart archives. Its collections are rich, and making them more visible hopefully will spur more people to use them. Plus, I hope you’ll learn some new and surprising and fascinating things about our LGBT past. And, I also hope that folks from other community-based archives will do some blogging on OutHistory about their collections.
John D’Emilio is a Director of OutHistory.org and Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Illinois Chicago.