A Conversation with Alex Ketchum
Alexandra Ketchum, Faculty Lecturer at the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at McGill University (Montreal, Canada), has recently launched a new directory of LGBTQ+ archives and resources in the United States and Canada. This open-access digital resource will be of tremendous help to scholars, archivists, students, and community members who are interested in queer history and to those who wish to keep track of these institutions, projects, and spaces. The directory is a generous contribution to the study of LGBTQ+ history and exciting proof of the growth and development of queer archives in both community-based organizations and mainstream institutions.
Ketchum’s online finding aid builds on earlier efforts to share information about LGBTQ+ archives. One of the projects that preceded and inspired her directory is the Lavender Legacies Guide, published in 1996 by the Society of American Archivists’ Lesbian and Gay Archives Roundtable (LAGAR). In the words of its producers, the guide constituted “the first formal and comprehensive guide to primary source material relating to the history and culture of lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgendered (LBGT) people held by repositories in North America.” In publishing this guide, LAGAR also built on several previous efforts, including the work of LAGAR member Douglas Haller, who maintained an informal list, and archivist Elizabeth Knowlton, whose 1987 published survey LAGAR cites as “the first serious effort to locate resources in mainstream archives and publicize them.”
Although Ketchum’s directory builds on previous, similar efforts, her project has several distinctive features. For example, her directory comprises two lists. One features LGBTQ+ specific archives—including previously independent queer archives that are now part of a larger archive or institution. The other features LGBTQ+ collections and resources that are housed within larger archives and not held previously by independent queer archives. For Ketchum, this is an important distinction that was not highlighted in previous directories, allowing users researching the histories or archival practices of community-based or independent queer archives to quickly identify and keep track of those institutions, projects, and spaces. Another distinctive feature of Ketchum’s work is the involvement of the community. She has invited the public to contribute to the list and about thirty people have responded to her call as of 2023. In fact, Ketchum continues to welcome contributions, especially if researchers notice any missing archives or resources. (Find out how to contribute here.) Notably, whereas previous directories, like the Lavender Legacies Guide, are no longer being updated, Ketchum intends to maintain and update her lists regularly.
On July 5, 2023, historian Juan Carlos Mezo-González—resident blogger for the LGBTQ Oral History Digital Collaboratory (Toronto, Canada)—sat down with Ketchum to discuss the conceptual origins, challenges, and triumphs of this directory. In the interview, Ketchum situates her work within the longer history of queer archives and discusses how the project emerged from the specific needs of her research on queer and feminist history in the United States and Canada from the mid-20th century to the present day.
Read an edited version of the conversation below or click here to screen the original video recording.
Juan Carlos Mezo-González (JCM): Could you tell us how you became interested in compiling a list of LGBTQ+ archives and resources? What were the needs of your original project and what sparked your interest in making this list?
Alex Ketchum (AK): One of the underlying driving forces of any kind of research project that I do is that I don’t want people to have to repeat the same process. I want to create something that other people can build on. I first started making this directory just for my own personal use. I’ve been working on a new book project looking at how different LGBTQ organizations in the US and Canada around the mid-90s had to move online very quickly and learn the skill sets to do so. Through my archival research for that project, I’ve relied a lot on printed out emails. During that period from the mid-90s to early 2000s, a lot of people were printing out every email they got. We weren’t sending as many emails at that time, so it was something that was feasible to do. People put these emails into archival folders, sometimes in subject and vertical files, sometimes within a certain collection. Because I’ve been depending so much on printed emails, I started to think about what’s happening now: people don’t really tend to print emails that much. But even if an archive or individual who has their own collections keeps their own emails, maybe on their Gmail account or Hotmail account, they’re not necessarily sorting them; they’re not necessarily saving them. And that information isn’t necessarily available to researchers.
I know that the kind of move to the digital has been a huge question for archivists, librarians, and records managers for a while. I wanted to get a more comprehensive view of how LGBTQ and Two-Spirit archives in particular have been thinking about email management and archiving of emails. So I decided I wanted to contact every LGBTQ2S+ archive in the US and Canada to ask them about their strategies, how they’re thinking about things, what they’re already doing, what they plan to do. And in order to contact all of them, I needed to have a list of all of them. And there had been some previous lists that I know we’re going to talk about, but there hadn’t been anything that had been recently updated that was publicly available. So I needed to make this list for myself. And once I started to make this list, there was a lot of interest in it and I wanted to make that available. So I started off with making just a tiny URL link. But that won’t be readily searchable for other researchers in the future. So then I decided to buy the domain name, lgbtqarchives.com, and put those Google spreadsheets that I made so I can easily update them on the website so other people can make use of these resources.
JCM: Could you tell us more about how earlier, similar projects helped to launch yours, and what is different about your project?
AK: I’ve relied on the Lavender Legacies Project, which was made by the Society of American Archivists, and they had multiple versions. The last update was in 2012. And when I was doing research for my feminist restaurant project (which was my doctoral work) and in the later book, Ingredients for Revolution, I really relied on that list to see where LGBTQ archives and also LGBTQ collections were housed across the US and Canada. So that project is a little different because it doesn’t distinguish between archives and collections at larger archives, the way that my list does. So if you go to lgbtqarchives.com, you’ll see that there are two different spreadsheets. One is basically LGBTQ2S+ specific archives. Oftentimes, these are community archives; some of them are independent archives. And there is an exception if it was once an independent or community archive, but now it’s housed at a university, because sometimes that happens. The people organizing the archive pass away, or they aren’t able to financially support it, or they burn out, or for whatever reason they move the collection to a larger university. So those are the exceptions in the one list. The other list is large LGBTQ collections and materials at something like a state university archive, a government archive, sometimes affiliated with different museums. So I still have all that information that is in Lavender Legacies; I’ve just split it into two places.
Trying to create that definitional boundary is really difficult because, like I said, what happens when a community archive now is part of their materials, they’re now part of this larger archive. That kind of difficulty in distinguishing, I think, is one reason why Lavender Legacies for the SAA is just in a single list. I talked to Marika Cifor, who was part of the 2012 revision of Lavender Legacies, about why they kept it in that way. And they said they’re just modeling it off of the earlier version, which didn’t distinguish between the special kind of community archives and collections elsewhere. So the reason it’s broken down on my own list is because the initial project, where I wanted to contact archives about their email policies, required that I have the list of “LGBTQ specific” archives because state archives in the US are oftentimes held to different governmental laws and policies that are going to be different in a community archive. And those laws and policies governing email records management and retention of emails and retention schedules are different in community archive. I was really interested in what community archives are doing, so the divide is because of my own project. But it’s not a hierarchy. I’m not saying one type of archive and one type of collection is better than another. It’s more just what I needed for my research purposes. But everyone can find all the information on the website.
JCM: There are ongoing debates about whether LGBTQ+ materials are best housed at independent archives or in mainstream institutions such as universities. From your perspective, what are the benefits and the disadvantages of these two types of repositories?
AK: I’ve thought about this quite a lot. A few years ago, I published a piece for Digital Humanities Quarterly that was actually about independent LGBTQ projects, digital humanities projects trying to categorize and save the histories of and speak about the histories of LGBTQ spaces. So my own project and Gregor Mattson’s project and also the Lost Womyn’s Spaces project—all of these projects are run by an individual, right? So if something happens to us as individuals, then the project can be lost. We might not be able to renew the domain name. That’s a burden on our families or friends to do it. It makes it more vulnerable. And even when community archives are run by a group of people, it’s usually a smaller group of people, a few volunteers. People can burn out, people can get sick, they can move away, they can pass away. There’s always constant fundraising. And there’s not always the same kind of infrastructure to support the materials, to support opening hours, to support researchers. But on the other hand, you know that the people running that independent community archive are really invested in preserving this history. One of the risks of moving to a larger institution is what if the people running that institution right now are queer friendly, care about queer history, but what if management changes? What if politics change and they decide to throw out the materials? They can decide not to protect these histories. And because of the disinterest larger state and university archives had at one time in preserving queer history, that’s a big reason why independent community queer archives were founded in the first place.
So the pros and cons have to do with the material conditions of running the space, financial resources, labor resources, but also preserving one’s own histories is really important. I think some of the projects that can be really successful are ones that still have the community really actively involved in the management of the materials but are able to make use of the larger institutional resources. So sometimes a community archive will move into a larger university and so they still have some control over the collection, but they don’t need to deal with monitoring the humidity in the room and they don’t need to deal with having a plan if the room floods or keeping track of researchers and stuff like that. So again, I don’t think it’s really a hierarchy that one is better than the other. There’s just pros and cons to both and I think it’s something that we’re going to have to continue to navigate, but also changing political situations always put this up in the air, too.
JCM: I think that’s a very interesting topic. In my experience, some community-based archives (even if they don’t have the same funding that a university would have) are more effective in preparing the materials for you and helping you navigate the collections.
AK: Definitely. I really find that a lot of times the community archives really know what they have. I mean there are exceptions to that, too. Sometimes I’ve had the experience where it’s a community archive in an attic or a basement and they’re like, “Here’s the key. Let us know when you’re done.” They don’t always know. And so there’s a bit of freedom there, but oftentimes there’s great care of the materials. There’s a more welcoming vibe when you’re there. It’s a little less formalized. Oftentimes—this isn’t the case with every community archive—but I know that sometimes when people enter certain university archives or certain state archives or institutional archives, there can be the feeling of gatekeepers. Oftentimes there’s a lot more surveillance. You might need to leave an ID card. Some of them require the use of gloves, even when actually that might not be the best archival practice because you could tear the paper. There are these different kinds of barriers. People might feel surveilled in a different way. So there are some amazing university archives that are doing things to invite community members in, have public events, and that kind of outreach is so important. And something that I try to actually bring to the McGill University archives and special collections is having students come in, having public events where people no longer feel scared because normally they have to be buzzed in, like it’s a locked door. And I want to break down some of those barriers while still making sure the materials are preserved and taken care of. But it can be a really different experience. And so, for anyone who’s listening, who’s had a bad experience at one of those university or institutional archives, I do encourage you to maybe try again at a community archive because I think you’ll have a different kind of experience.
JCM: You have invited people to contribute to your lists. Could you share how many contributions you have received and how do you decide whether to include them on your list? How can people submit their requests for additions to the lists?
AK: There have been about thirty people that have reached out in different ways. When I first started making the list, I shared it on a few different listservs like the Arkanel. I started with Facebook archivist groups. I also shared it through social media on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter, just spaces where I know of other archivists. I had people retweet it and share it so that others would see it. I encourage people to send me direct messages, to email me. I made my email readily available. And I also enabled the comment feature for people to leave a comment. And fortunately, no one used it to troll or dox the project. I think because while sometimes public projects that invite public comments do draw cyberbullying and homophobic and transphobic comments, the topic of archives is niche enough that I was fortunate not to get any of that. And pretty much everything everyone sent me was useful and related to the project subject matter. It tended to be a lot of archivists and historians and librarians and researchers and different kinds of volunteers who just sent me information about their own collections or archives or projects. Because there was so much interest, that’s a big reason I also put it online and made the website. But I also got a few folks who just sent me stuff that wasn’t related to the geographic focus of the project. So while I really appreciated those emails, it’s really focused on the US and Canadian ones. The reason is because that’s what my project was looking at and also just for the feasibility. So if anyone is interested in taking all of the information off of my spreadsheets, please feel free to do so and plop that into another database of worldwide LGBTQ archives. I’m not trying to gatekeep this information. Please credit the work. That’s an important practice. Citation is a political practice. But I’m just doing this to make it easily available so other folks can do their own research and find information to contact archives. And I continue to update things when people send them to me. I mostly was getting emails and DMs and stuff right when I launched the project a couple months ago. But anyone can reach out. If you go to lgbtqarchives.com, information to reach me is there. I’m also really easy to find online. Alexketchum.ca is my website. You can find my email. So if you check the list and you don’t find something listed, please let me know. Also, in the directory of other resources, I included things like oral history projects. I’m grateful to the LGBTQ Oral History Digital Collaboratory’s Oral History Hub, too. I included those resources as well so people can make use of those oral histories.
JCM: What is your greatest hope for the future of this project?
AK: I was able to distribute the questionnaires for the initial email project. I was able to distribute the questionnaires and had about a 40% response rate, which was pretty exciting. And so I collated that information and shared it with the archives themselves, asked if they’re okay with how I’ve represented them. But also, the archives have been able to benefit from learning each other’s strategies, which has been great and was one of the goals. I want to publish the piece. It’ll be open access. I’ll make sure that’s the case. And I hope that this project, the email part of the project, inspires different community archives, so LGBTQ2S ones, as well as other archives focusing on histories of different marginalized folks, to benefit from that and also to help researchers think about their own methodologies and using emails, because I know for me, emails have been such an important resource.
For the website itself, I think I bought the domain name for ten years. So hopefully I’ll just renew it and be able to add things from time to time. One of the challenges anytime someone makes a directory or list that’s about ongoing projects is that it becomes out of date the moment you publish it. Because things are always changing: new projects start, projects end. So I hope that I can continue to benefit from community feedback to add things about closures or openings over time. And I really just hope people can make use of the resources. I got into doing this directory also because I started building directories back in 2013 for the feminist restaurant project. And I’m done with that project. Basically, the book is out. I published a lot on it. But people still continue to send me new feminist restaurants or ones I never heard about from the ‘70s. And I continue to add. I literally added something this morning that someone sent me. And no project will ever be fully complete. And I just want people to take the archives directory and the feminist restaurant directory and continue to use them for their own research and do work that I wouldn’t have been able to do before these directories were possible. I hope it’s just a piece of the larger puzzle of documenting queer and feminist histories.
JCM: Thank you for making this list available. I think it will be of great use for people doing research or for people who are just interested in learning about queer archives or the histories of their communities. Thank you also for your time.
AK: Thank you so much. And thank you to all the amazing archivists who also preserve our history because they’re doing such important work. I can’t thank all of them individually but thank you to the hundreds and thousands of folks who volunteer and work at these spaces.
Alex Ketchum is a Faculty Lecturer of the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies of McGill University. She is the author of Engage in Public Scholarship: A Guidebook on Feminist and Accessible Communication (2022) and Ingredients for a Revolution: A History of American Feminist Restaurants, Cafes, and Coffeehouses (2022). Learn more here.
Juan Carlos Mezo-González is a historian of sexuality, race, and visual culture in Mexican and transnational contexts. He holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Toronto (2022), where he is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow. He also serves as a member of the OutHistory Advisory Board.
 LAGAR was formed in 1989 by Society of American Archivists members concerned about the recovery, preservation, and understanding of the history of lesbians, gay men, and their institutions. The name of the group was later changed to the Diverse Sexuality and Gender Section (DSGS).