History Projects, Libraries, and Archives

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Libraries, archives, and history projects have figured prominently in LGBT communities. People with non-mainstream gender or sexual identities often struggle

against cultural and individual invisibility, and they usually do not come from families that pass along a positive sense of LGBT life. For these and other reasons, many LGBT people have turned to libraries, archives, and history projects for learning about the LGBT past and present.


Threatened records. Scholars rely on documentary evidence, collected by many libraries, archives, and history projects, to analyze, interpret, and retell histories of gender and sexuality. However, creation of LGBT documents has been limited by many LGBT people's concerns about disclosing their own and other people's sexual and gender identities. Moreover, the diaries, love letters, meeting notes, photographs, flyers, newsletters, and other materials created by LGBT people have often faced insecure futures.

In some notable cases, LGBT records have been systematically destroyed, as when on 6 May 1933, Adolf Hitler's regime in Nazi Germany publicly burned parts of the archives and library of Magnus Hirschfeld's Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin. Martin Duberman discovered when trying to research the sexual history of the nineteenth-century politician James Henry Hammond at the South Caroliniana Library that archivists and donors may also restrict public access to LGBT materials.

Other documents have not survived because, following a person's death, homophobic or transphobic relatives have discarded the documents. In many cases, LGBT people have not thought of offering their records to an archive, and it was not until the late 1980s that professional archives in the United States started actively reaching out to LGBT communities and expressing interest in preserving their histories.

Early collections. Long before this occurred, communitybased initiatives worked to preserve LGBT materials. To learn about LGBT role models, foster respect for LGBT people, and know and have access to LGBT history, individuals and groups in a number of cities created history projects, libraries, and archives.

Jim Kepner (1923–1997) began collecting books, articles, and memorabilia "relating directly or indirectly to Gay/Lesbian concerns, sexuality, and morals" in 1942, and ended up creating the first known LGBT archives and library in North America, the International Gay and Lesbian Archives (Carmichael, p. 175). In 1994, it merged with the ONE, Inc., collection, which W. Dorr Legg had started in 1952. ONE/IGLA, now called ONE Institute and Archives, eventually established a relationship with the University of Southern California.

Another early collector was Barbara Grier, who from 1950 to 1972 avidly collected LGBT literature, which she later gave to the San Francisco Public Library. Her collection was the basis for her important bibliography The Lesbian in Literature, first published in 1967.

Collections by Region

West Coast. In addition to IGLA and ONE, the West Coast saw the emergence in 1981 of the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives (originally called the West Coast Lesbian Collections), and in 1985 of the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Northern California, renamed the GLBT Historical Society in 2002.

Through the efforts of Willie Walker and other members of the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project, the GLBT Historical Society has done an excellent job of documenting LGBT life in San Francisco and northern California. In 1995, this organization was able to hire the archivist Paula Jabloner, who worked for three years to process key collections, and it has been able to keep paid staff ever since. Walker also helped successfully launch the University of California, San Francisco's AIDS History Project, which spans the first thirteen years of the AIDS epidemic (c. 1981–1994) within the San Francisco Bay area.

In 1996, the San Francisco Public Library opened a Gay and Lesbian Center, later named after the philanthropist James C. Hormel. In addition to collecting new materials on LGBT culture in the Bay Area, it provides physical access to some of the processed collections from the GLBT Historical Society that are on deposit there.

The Gay and Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest was founded in October 1994 by a group of community-based historians in Portland, Oregon.

East Coast. Joan Nestle and Deb Edel started one of the most influential and important community archives projects, the Lesbian Herstory Archives, in New York City in 1973. It opened for use by the lesbian community in 1976 and remained in Nestle's apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side until 1992, when it moved to a Brooklyn townhouse purchased following a successful fundraising campaign.

The Lesbian Herstory Archives has been a model for other community collections by serving as an agent for political change and community building, and by making contributions to the interpretation of lesbian history while carrying out traditional archival functions. By presenting slide shows and participating in annual pride marches, the Lesbian Herstory Archives has made itself and information about lesbian history visible.

In 1988, the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York City decided to develop an archival program and start collecting LGBT materials in its National Archive of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History.

Midwest. The Gerber/Hart Gay and Lesbian Library and Archives started in Chicago in 1981. Like the Lesbian Herstory Archives and other LGBT libraries and archives, Gerber/Hart conceives of its mission as promoting social change. The Quatrefoil Library, which opened in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1986, was the realization of a dream for David Irwin and Dick Hewetson, who had been collecting gay books since the mid-1970s.

As with many other community-run projects, both Chicago's Gerber/Hart and St. Paul's Quatrefoil volunteers have focused more on their lending library than on preserving unique primary sources and making them accessible. Preserving and processing manuscript or archival collections is labor- and resource-intensive and reaches a smaller audience. A larger group of people will want to look at an occasional book than come in to do indepth historical research, so it makes sense that most community-based institutions have organized mainly around libraries.

Other parts of the United States and Canada. LGBT libraries, archives, and history projects have also been established in other parts of the United States and also in Canada.

The Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives were formed in 1973 in Toronto and have been run entirely by volunteers. Jearld Moldenhauer, a founding member of the Body Politic collective, was instrumental in keeping the newspaper's and other records, which became the initial core of the Canadian Gay Liberation Movement Archives, renamed the Canadian Gay Archives in 1975 and the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives in 1993. Other important leaders include Ron Dayman, Ed Jackson, James Fraser, and Alan Miller. This archive has created numerous important bibliographies in addition to its newsletter, and distributes several monographs on Canadian LGBT history.

Collections by Type

Community history projects. Community history projects have had a significant impact not only on the collection and preservation of documents, but also on the interpretation and dissemination of LGBT history. The History Project in Boston, established in 1980, is a group of volunteer historians, activists, and archivists who have concentrated on conducting research and creating forums for educating the general public about LGBT people in Massachusetts. Major accomplishments include an extensive exhibit in 1996, Public Faces, Private Lives; a book, Improper Bostonians, published in 1998; and the exhibit Black and Gay in Black and White. The History Project

has also created online exhibits and helped to record and share Boston's queer history in other ways. Additionally, the project focuses on preserving the documentary record, though it does not house collections itself and is independent of any particular repository. Its volunteers work to shepherd collections into appropriate homes, providing another good model for community archives projects.

Similarly, the Austin Lesbian Activism in the 70's Herstory Project works to facilitate the donation of primary sources about lesbian activity in Austin, Texas, to archives "acceptable to the donor." Project volunteers work primarily with the Center for American History, the Austin History Center, and the Lesbian Herstory Archives. The lesbians in this organization take as their mission preserving their local history, and they work to raise women's awareness of the importance of the records they may have in their closets and attics. They also conduct oral history interviews.

A growing number of studies completed by trained academics can also be considered community history projects. First came Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis's Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, which appeared in 1993 after a lengthy and careful community study of Buffalo, New York. This was followed by studies by Esther Newton (Cherry Grove, Fire Island), George Chauncey (New York City), John Howard (Mississippi), Marc Stein (Philadelphia), Nan Boyd (San Francisco), and various other studies included in Creating a Place for Ourselves: Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community Histories, edited by Brett Beemyn. Based on oral histories as well as archival research, most of these studies depended on the contributions of members of each community studied.

Early collections. The first professional U.S. repository to document sexual minorities intentionally was the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, founded in 1947 by Alfred Kinsey and affiliated with Indiana University. Sexual practices and attitudes are the focus of its collections. Documents pertinent to histories of sexuality and gender also can be found in many other mainstream archives, although they might not have been collected with this use in mind and might not be described as such. The archivist Elizabeth Knowlton conducted a survey to locate such sources and published her results in a 1987 issue of Provenance.

Several initiatives that had been brewing for some time coalesced in the professional archival community in 1988. In Atlanta, at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists, members interested in lesbian and gay history met informally and started a petition for the creation of the Lesbian and Gay Archives Roundtable (LAGAR). Since then, LAGAR has reached out to community history projects and archives and has encouraged all archival repositories to take part in documenting LGBT history.

Major public and university collections. In New York City in 1988, the New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division agreed to take and provide access to the accumulated holdings of a community archives project that had gone defunct, the International Gay Information Center Archives. At that time, the library's archives made primary sources about LGBT people and organizations in New York City and the Northeast a collecting focus.

Also in 1988, Cornell University received the library and archives of the Mariposa Education and Research Foundation and established a new program, the Human Sexuality Collection. Mariposa, founded by Bruce R. Voeller in 1970, had been a bicoastal community effort, with apartments in both New York and California filling up with important documents rescued by Mariposa volunteers. Seeing a need for a professional institution to take responsibility for collecting at the national level, the Human Sexuality Collection continued in this vein. Influenced by the activists Voeller and David B. Good-stein and by an advisory committee, Cornell decided to focus on the various ways in which sexuality becomes an issue in society and concentrate on documenting LGBT organizations and individuals, paying particular attention to under-documented people and issues. The Human Sexuality Collection now contains the official archives for numerous national organizations and serves as home to the papers of transgender activists, documentation of how race influences lesbian and gay politics and communities, sources on lesbian writers, and substantial material on the impact of AIDS.

Growth of mainstream LGBT collections. With increased awareness about the importance of documentation about sexual and gender minorities, all kinds of mainstream archives have joined the effort to secure a more complete historical record. The Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College and Harvard University's Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America have highlighted their important lesbian collections and actively worked to build their holdings. Other repositories have added new collecting subjects. In 1989, Michigan State University started its Changing Men Collections, which document various men's movements and provide different kinds of relevant sources for those studying gender and sexual identity. In 2000, the University of Michigan Library's Labadie Collection accepted the donation of the National Transgender Library and Archives.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, many regional repositories were collecting local history related to gender and sexual minorities. The University of Oregon, for instance, sought documentation of the numerous lesbian communes and lesbian back-to-the-land activities in Oregon. Duke University's Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture collected materials on southern lesbian and gay writers and activists and has given a home to the archives of the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance. Around the same time, Tulane University Libraries' Special Collections started more actively documenting the history of gender and sexual diversity in New Orleans. The Minnesota Historical Society, the Wisconsin Historical Society, and other state repositories have also been preserving important collections from their regions. In 2001, the University of Minnesota Library became home to the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender

Studies, making available materials collected by Tretter since 1982.

Advantages and disadvantages. The advantages and disadvantages of community archives and professional archives, as well as the ways these institutions may assist each other and the contributions both can make to better historical understanding, have been regular subjects at archives, library, and LGBT studies conferences. These topics are also explored in Daring to Find Our Names, edited by James V. Carmichael, Jr.

Issues discussed include community control, accessibility, mainstream acceptance, professional care, inclusion of controversial topics, and interpretation of sources. In an effort both to assist researchers and to facilitate communication among archives, members of LAGAR have compiled contact, use, and collections information from repositories around North America, and have published Lavender Legacies: Guide to Sources in North America (available on the World Wide Web at http://www.archivists.org/saagroups/lagar/home.htm).

Internet and microfilm access. Increasingly in the 1990s and early 2000s, individuals and institutions have explored making information about the history of sexuality and gender identity available to people through the Internet. For instance, Yolanda Retter helped bring attention to the history of lesbians of color through her Web site for the Lesbian History Project (http://www-lib.usc.edu/~retter/main.html). Specific research guides online include Cornell's Sexuality Research Guide (http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/HSC/faq/hscfaq.htm) and the New York Public Library's Gay and Lesbian Studies (http://www.nypl.org/research/chss/grd/resguides/gay.html). Archives have also worked to make available on the Web more and more of the finding aids that list the contents of individual boxes and folders in their collections. These developments have made the history of sexuality and gender more accessible to a wide audience and make the research process more efficient.

In addition, commercial microfilming companies have produced collections relating to LGBT issues. Microfilming archival collections not only makes them more accessible; it also preserves them in an additional format. The commercial success of such products is a testament to the vitality of LGBT studies.

Preserving the Stories of Their Lives

When the Task Force on Gay Liberation formed at the 1970 American Library Association meeting in Detroit, librarians earned the distinction of having the first nationwide professional organization that included a gay group. Members went on to work for better subject headings, improved indexing for alternative periodicals, and improved public and academic library holdings on LGBT topics. Now, when people go to libraries to look for books on homosexuality or transgenderism, finding suitable sources is not as hard as it once was.

That a band of LGBT activists mobilized early on within the library profession is not at all surprising when one looks at the various ways that LGBT people have cared about books, access to books, and the libraries and archives that preserve the stories of their lives.


Beemyn, Brett. Creating a Place for Ourselves: Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community Histories. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Boyd, Nan Alamilla. Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Carmichael, James V., Jr., ed. Daring to Find Our Names: The Search for Lesbigay Library History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 . New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Duberman, Martin Bauml. "'Writhing Bedfellows' in Antebellum South Carolina: Historical Interpretation and the Politics of Evidence." In Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. Edited by Martin Bauml Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr. New York: New American Library, 1989.

Gough, Cal, and Ellen Greenblatt, eds. Gay and Lesbian Library Service. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1990.

Grier, Barbara. The Lesbian in Literature: A Bibliography. Tallahassee, Fla.: Naiad Press, 1981.

History Project. Improper Bostonians: Lesbian and Gay History from the Puritans to Playland. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.

Howard, John. Men Like That: A Southern Queer History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky, and Madeline D. Davis. Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Knowlton, Elizabeth. "Documenting the Gay Rights Movement." Provenance 5, no. 1 (1987).

Newton, Esther. Cherry Grove, Fire Island: Sixty Years in America's First Gay and Lesbian Town. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

Plant, Richard. The Nazi War against Homosexuals. New York: Henry Holt, 1986.

Stein, Marc. City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945–1972. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Brenda J. Marston

see alsogrier, barbara; history; kepner, james; legg, dorr; lesbian herstory archives; one.

from the lesbian herstory archives' statement of purpose


"The Lesbian Herstory Archives exist to gather and preserve records of Lesbian lives and activities so that future generations will have ready access to materials relevant to their lives. The process of gathering this material will also serve to uncover and collect our her-story denied to us previously by patriarchal historians in the interests of the culture which they serve."

from the gerber/hart library website


"Hosting various programs and events which support its beliefs that knowledge is the key to dispelling homophobia and that affirming information about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered persons is critical to fostering pride and self-confidence, Gerber/Hart Library seeks to not only preserve and protect items of LGBT individuals and organizations, but to be a conduit for change."

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