Voice 1: Considerations in the Organization of Gay Archives by Jim Monahan

Last Edit: March 15, 2022

Jim Monahan, "Considerations in the Organization of Gay Archives," Gay Insurgent, nos. 4-5 (Spring 1979): 9.

If historical understandings are to profit from knowledge of the gay past, there must be created centers where the basic research can be done. The establishment of gay archives, as many people are coming to realize, is presently the paramount activity which can best facilitate that research. The primary resources for gay historical research, when they exist at all, are scattered and may be held under conditions that limit their accessibility and peril their continued existence. While there is some urgency to these activities of collecting and making available the records of gay activity, there are considerations, in addition to the technical ones of archival organization, that must be given some thought before present efforts go much further. These include the aims of history, the location of repositories, and the management of sensitive material.

A collection of resources into an archive established to serve the interests of the gay community and available mainly for those interested individuals who wish to document what has been, diminishes the vision of gay history to not much more then antiquarianism. Gay history, remaining in that state, can achieve no better that what other minority history has achieved because of its failure to find a way to contribute to the major understandings history aims to develop. Therefore, to remain separate, both physically and intellectually, from general history is to cultivate parochialism. It leaves gay studies to faddish chance, to exist in once-in-a-while course offerings passing from existence as the fad and instructors pass.

Mitigating these ebbs and flows in gay study offerings, particularly gay history, will require every effort to integrate the gay past into historical thinking, promoting the use of information in the analysis of broader historical questions. A study of social movements, for example, can profit from the study of the gay movement just as the question of a gay “movement” can profit when approached from an analysis of “movement” as an historical construct. Studies of gay sub-cultures over time, going beyond mere description, should prove valuable in the continuing analysis of continuity and change.

Guided by this larger aim of integrating gay history into history, the decisions regarding a site for a gay archive become rather obvious. Gay archives should go into repositories located within academic institutions. These institutions should be identified not only by the fact of their interest in the gay material but also by the fact of related collections already in their possession. Given that an institution is already engaged in collecting material on other sensitive subjects or about groups that are formed outside the mainstream of social organization, its collections can only be enhanced, as well as it reputation as a research center, with the addition of a gay archive. And if these records become concentrated in a few repositories as opposed to small isolated collections in this, that, and the other university library, the institutions specializing in gay collection are further blessed by the eminence of a particular collection. Research is better facilitated; the economic burden of a researcher is lessened; the historical profession is faced with a body of rich material that cannot be ignored.

The collecting efforts that must go into establishing such repositories requires the collaboration and cooperation of men and women individually and in their organizational associations to bring it off. Separatist tendencies and factional politics are odd luxuries to be suffered only until they militate against this goal, and that they seem to be doing. The only separation or faction this archival movement can tolerate is one that allocates tasks and divides the labor required to bring the gay archives into, and thereby, creating, the major research centers that hold them.

First in this division of labor is a distinction among those things that are collected. If only from the point of view of developing expert collecting skills and acumen in that collecting, archives should be distinguished from that branch of a library known as Special Collections. The distinction is not an easy one, for an archive is a special collection, but the nature of its specialty can be defined to separate it from everything else that might be lumped under special collections. The initial distinction cannot be expected to be a definition that resolves all the hard decisions an archivist faces in accessioning materials.

Archives, for our purpose here, are the collections of records of organizations produced in the course of carrying out the organization aims.1 These records are non-published but do include such published material as newsletters or other communications efforts the organization makes among its members. Photographs may be included if they are the records of organizational activity, but a collection of photographs of gay activities in general would not necessarily qualify as archival material but as a special collection. A run of The Advocate is not archival material in itself except in the archives of The Advocate as a publishing organization.

More discussion should be given to this distinction, and the advice of archivists sought. The skills of Special Collections librarians should be sought for other collecting efforts.

Once a repository for the archives is identified and the collecting efforts producing results, the security of the materials must be considered. The characteristics that went into the selection of a repository suggest that the administrators are already sensitive to special problems of security when material is of the nature which this will be. The planning stage with the repository should have seen efforts to determine policies for the eventual administration.

Protection of sensitive information can always be had through the standard procedure of closed deposits, but these are only for a given period and when eventually opened to research may have to be guarded with other policies.

The University of Illinois, Chicago Circle has already met the problem of security and confidentiality because of its present collecting efforts. It maintains an extensive collection, for example, of juvenile case histories. With access to research in that collection, a researcher must agree in writing not to take notes of name of subjects in those cases. A researcher’s notes are subject to inspection in order to ensure compliance. One would expect from that institution an approach to records management sensitive to the needs and problems a gay archive might pose.

Security is the major problem; it is compounded by an unqualified policy of access to the material.

When a repository is an already-established archive, the problem of physical security is halved. The police raid on The Body Politic, and thus an incursion into the Canadian Gay Archives, reinforces the point that an archive which is independent or a recognized repository is not likely to be respected for what it is; an archive consisting solely of gay collections and managed solely through gay efforts cannot guarantee the security of its holdings as well as an archive which is part of an academic institution. While no site can guarantee 100% security, an established repository is in a better position to stave of police incursions, deal with the matter of subpoenaed materials, and provide the appropriate storage facilities that complete the security of materials.

Access to the materials cannot be accorded every curiosity seeker or individual not pursuing serious research. Vandalism, under the best of circumstances, has reached pandemic proportions in libraries and archives in general. Gay materials would only invite angels of retribution. Therefore, policy of limited access regulating who can handle the materials must be adopted. I would suggest the following criteria as an introduction to this question.

Access to the materials will be granted by the repository upon application by a researcher. The application is initially for the purpose of separating the serious researcher from the casual dabbler who has no real concerns with the information can satisfy. Any use of the material should be for the purpose of advancing some aspect of knowledge; therefore, the application must contain a definition of the research underway and the contributions which the collection can make. (Access given for a collection need not carry over to others.) In addition, the researcher should give evidence on one of the following: (1) membership in a gay organization, (2) appointment at an academic institution, or (3) student status at an accredited institution. In this last instance, a letter of support from an instructor should accompany the application.

Donors should have the power to grant access. This permission must be appended to any application. Since the possibility that such permission will grant a researcher access to records other than those donated by the granter, the granting of permission should be judiciously given. When donors are gay organizations—they generally will be—the officers of the organization, as long as it continues to deposit non-current records, can be considered donors and in a position to grant permission for access. A repository could reserve the right to deny access even though an application has a donor’s permission.

These thoughts on access need to be debated, that is, the specifics of them. It should be clear that some sort of restricted access must be in force if security is to be maintained.

All of this argument, however, becomes purely academic if the necessary collaboration and cooperation is not forthcoming. If archives remain precariously preserved in the ghettos, their preservation is next to pointless. Centralizing gay archives in three or four major regionally-oriented repositories will permit gay history to make contributions to the topics (e.g., sexuality, “covert sexual behavior”) which such a historian as Walter Rundell, current president of the Society of American Archivists, has urged are in need of further study.