Introduction to the Lafayette College Queer Archives Project
In 1992, The Princeton Review ranked Lafayette College the most homophobic institution of higher education in the United States. Less sensationally, but just as significantly, the same Review placed Lafayette first among all institutions for “Gays still in the closet.”
In many ways, the Lafayette Queer Archives Project Digital Humanities site is a belated response to these dramatic distinctions. A small, private liberal arts college with a strongly regional identity, Lafayette did not admit women until 1970 and has always been (and remains) a primarily white institution. Historically, the college has been characterized by many structural forms of gendered and racialized exclusion, including (unsurprisingly) a climate of silence and invisibility for its queer students, faculty, and staff. Engaging with Lafayette’s LGBTQ+ history, therefore, has been an undertaking both challenging and urgent.
The Queer Archives Project Digital Humanities site was developed as a multi-pronged attempt to open up an institution’s queer history and, in doing so, instigate intersectional, LGBTQ-positive institutional change. It uses a digital humanities (DH) approach (specifically via the open-source platform Scalar) to orchestrate three overarching elements:
- Teaching/learning in queer studies
- LGBTQ+ oral history interviews
- Archival work in queer history
A digital humanities approach works especially well for the QAP’s goal of broad institutional impact because DH projects can innovatively structure dynamic, mutually illuminating interactions across a vast amount of material while making such complexly networked content readily accessible.
Teaching and Learning in Queer Studies
The QAP DH site is rooted in teaching and learning, specifically the Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies (WGSS) course “Sexuality Studies,” which was developed and first taught by me in 2013. The class closely follows Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Vol. I and examines how institutions shape sexuality and sexual identities over time. Students in this class are tasked with learning more about Lafayette’s institutional connections to sexuality as a social category by partnering with the Lafayette College Archives.
When I began teaching the course a decade ago, the Lafayette College Archives had never intentionally collected any LGBTQ+ related materials per se. LGBTQ+ materials were present only when they had “piggybacked” onto other content deemed worthy of notice and retention. With student efforts and the engaged, committed support of Co-Director of Special Collections and College Archives and College Archivist Elaine Stomber and the Archives staff, these LGBTQ+ materials were lifted from their hiding places for the first time: LGBTQ+ student groups, for example, emerged from “Student Clubs,” while records on AIDS and AIDS-related homophobia on campus were identified within collections around “Student Health.”
As ongoing iterations of “Sexuality Studies” continued to be offered, WGSS students and Library staff brought a significant amount of LGBTQ+ materials to light, transforming the College Archives into a location of at least partial queer visibility. Yet because most LGBTQ+ materials had been only passively retained via unrelated preservation efforts, it became clear that in order to understand Lafayette’s queer history we would need additional ways to seek out information.
The QAP LGBTQ+ Oral History Project Opens Up the Archives
I began conducting LGBTQ+ oral history interviews to try to learn more about Lafayette’s queer past and to augment what “Sexuality Studies” students continued to mine from the Archives. From 2017 until 2022, I conducted eighteen oral history interviews with Lafayette LGBTQ+ identified alumni and four faculty and staff; two additional alumni interviews were conducted by members of the QAP Advisory Board.
In QAP oral histories, interviewees reflect on their experiences during their years on campus. The experiences and reflections shared in these interviews not only offered new knowledge about Lafayette’s LGBTQ+ history but further “cracked open” the Archives, generating fresh ideas for research. When, for example, interviewee Professor Emerita Susan Basow mentioned Audre Lorde’s 1984 visit to the College, it was the first time we learned that the influential “Black, Lesbian, Feminist, Warrior, Poet, Mother” had come to the Lafayette campus.
The QAP Digital Humanities Scalar Site
As oral history interviews expanded our understanding of Lafayette’s queer history and enabled more archival research, the time was right to begin to build the DH site. The DH site was conceptualized and constructed by a collaborative team that, along with myself, was led by Lafayette Libraries Director of Digital Scholarship Services (now Dean of Lafayette Libraries) Dr. Charlotte Nunes and Co-Director of Special Collections and College Archives and College Archivist Elaine Stomber. Its core purpose was to make Lafayette’s queer history visible and accessible by sharing out oral history interviews and the enormous number of associated archival artifacts that had recently come to light.
The QAP DH site is organized around LGBTQ+ oral history interviews (transcript and audio). Newly located artifacts inspired by interviews are scanned and uploaded to the site and then organized thematically. Every artifact is attached to any number of appropriate themes. So, for example, an event poster connected with the student association “Queer People of Color” would appear under multiple themes: “Race/Ethnicity,” “LGBTQ+ Student Groups” and “LGBTQ+ Campus Events.” New themes are added as the collection grows.
True to its interest in fostering student engagement in queer studies, the QAP DH site has closely involved student researchers in all phases of its development and construction. Lafayette students have had—and continue to have—a fundamental impact on designing and expanding the QAP. Most students associated with the QAP DH site have been connected through the Lafayette EXCEL Scholars Program, a “by faculty invitation only” program that directly involves students in faculty research (and pays them, as well). As befits an interdisciplinary undertaking, students from all across the College have participated in the QAP. In its very early phases, these EXCEL scholars worked with team leaders on conceptual issues—such as designing how to network interviews with objects on the site, developing themes, and creating a protocol for artifact metadata—and they participated in creating the site’s overall logic model. Since the launching of the site in 2019, EXCEL students continue to edit and upload new interviews, locate and scan related archival artifacts, enter object metadata, and network interviews and objects across the site. Students add new content via short essays called “Interpretive Paths,” which are thesis-driven, media-rich essays that thread through the site.
Fifteen of our twenty-four LGBTQ+ oral history interviews are now part of the DH site and are thematically networked with over 150 individually scanned items from the College Archives. Complete metadata is attached to every item.
The QAP DH site continues to expand with new oral history interviews and materials. In 2020, the year following its launch, the Lafayette Queer Archives Project DH site received the “Access Award” for excellence in engagement with primary sources from the Center for Research Libraries in Chicago.