Finding an Archival Home

A welcome and recurring request I get from people of a certain age who have been involved in LGBTQ life and activism is advice on where they might deposit their papers.

When I first started researching LGBTQ history, there were few such places.

In November 1991, when I was early on in my digging into Michigan’s queer past, I sent a letter to the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University to see what archival sources they might have that could help in my research.

The reply came by mail a week later.  “I am afraid that none of our collections contain material on homosexuality, gay liberation, or ‘sex deviation,’” research archivist Raymond Boryczka informed me.

As it happened, I later learned that they actually did have evidence of LGBTQ lives—important evidence—in the records of President Clarence Hilberry and in the bound, brittle pages of The South End.  At least one collection, the papers of a gay male activist, remained unprocessed due to a backlog.

I share this story not to cast the Reuther Library in bad light.  (Below I will discuss the strides Reuther staff have made in recent years.)  I share this story as an indication of just how devoid of queer content our repositories were not so long ago.

An entry I wrote for the Process blog of the Organization of American Historians in October 2017 recounts the phenomenal growth in LGBTQ archives since John D’Emilio published his landmark Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities in 1983.  D’Emilio had to rely heavily on manuscript collections still in private hands, some stuffed away in file cabinets in people’s homes.

Now, decades later, there are many, many LGBTQ and LGBTQ-friendly repositories, large and small.

The Diverse Sexuality and Gender Section of the Society of American Archivists maintains the Lavender Legacies Directory for researchers seeking LGBTQ archival materials.  The listings can also serve as a guide for placing your papers, for finding an archival home.

Nationally, these include such notable community archives as the Stonewall National Museum & Archives in Fort Lauderdale, the Gerber/Hart Library in Chicago, and the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco.

Among the major university-based LGBTQ archives are the Human Sexuality Collection at Cornell University, the Tretter Collection at the University of Minnesota, and the ONE Archives, which began as a community archive and is now part of the University of Southern California Library system.

We are fortunate to also have a number of specialized repositories that focus on specific segments of the broader LGBTQ community.

The renowned Lesbian Herstory Archives, founded in 1974 in Joan Nestle’s Manhattan apartment and now residing in a Brooklyn townhouse, has grown into the world’s largest collection of manuscripts, publications, and other materials by and about lesbians.

In the Life Archive, originally the Black Gay and Lesbian Archive Project, was established in 2000 by archivist, editor, and documentarian Steven G. Fullwood at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library.

The Leather Archives & Museum in Chicago was founded in 1991 by Tony DeBlase and bar owner and leather pioneer Chuck Renslow to preserve leather, kink, fetish, and BDSM history and culture.

Krü Maekdo created the grassroots, Atlanta-based Black Lesbian Archives in 2017 to address “a lack of digital representation of Black Lesbians on the web and local physical resources. IE: libraries, archives, etc.,” and to foster community connections via a traveling display of the collection.

 

Archives, in general, exist both to preserve documentary material and to make their content available to researchers.  They strive to balance their safeguarding role with playing a vital institutional part in public disclosure, revealing pasts previously unknown, and helping to build knowledge.

The unveiling of secret histories is one of the most exciting aspects of archival and historical work.  However, for many LGBTQ folk, presuming the vaults of their hidden lives haven’t been emptied for self-protection, any decision to open the vaults can be weighted with caution,.

At the same time, many LGBTQ folk are adamant that their lives not be erased.

This is why LGBTQ-specific archives were founded.

For LGBTQ folk, the choice of an archival home for the materials that document their lives carries added concerns compared to non-LGBTQ donors.  This is particularly so for those from older generations who may have experienced hostility, discrimination, and even violence.

These are concerns that every archive needs to understand.

LGBTQ people, individually and collectively, deserve to have their heritage saved in archives that are respectful, sensitive, and trustworthy.

 

In providing guidance, rather than give any kind of decisive answer in favor of any one specific place, I try to suggest a number of options and to help people explore the pros and cons of different archives and different types of archives to find someplace that is an appropriate fit.

A key advantage of community-based LGBTQ archives is their closer ties to communities and potential users.  They have connections and carry inherent knowledge that big non-LGBTQ archives can’t match.  They have a real stake in the communities they serve, and so are viewed as accessible.

As with any non-profit, community LGBTQ archives can be financially vulnerable.  Even those with stronger financial backing tend to rely on volunteers to collect and process materials, as well as to provide reference assistance.

Academic archives can seem far removed from queer communities.  Some might consider them elitist.  Their location, restricted hours, and security measures can be off putting.  And given that LGBTQ collections are but one part of their holdings, prospective donors may wonder whether their inclusion will remain a priority over time.  While perhaps more financially stable, they are not immune to budget cuts.

On the other hand, academic archives do carry a stronger promise of being around in 100 years.  They are professionally staffed, with the expertise to process and catalog materials.  Their reference archivists are trained to assist scholars, students, and lay researchers in doing effective archival research.  They also practice proper preservation techniques and boast state-of-the-art climate-controlled facilities.

 

Since much of my own research is focused on Michigan and most of my contacts seeking advice on finding an archival home are here, I offer some more detailed discussion on potential choices in our state.  The richest holdings are located at Michigan’s three major universities, but they are not the only possibilities.

 

Mattachine Records at Labadie
Detroit Mattachine Records in the Labadie Collection.

 

Labadie Collection

Established in 1911, the Joseph A. Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan aims to document radicalism from the left and the right.  When Edward Weber took over as curator in 1960, he added the category of Sexual Freedom to its mission, making UM among the earliest, if not the earliest, academic institution to actively archive queer materials.

Here you may find such holdings as the Mattachine Society Detroit Area Council records, the Leaping Lesbian Collective records, and the papers of Ann Arbor trans and kink writer and artist Lisa Middlesex.  The Labadie Collection is also home to the extensive National Transgender Library & Archive, which came to UM in 2000 when Labadie was selected over a number of other institutions as caretaker for the NTL&A.

Prospective donors should contact Labadie curator Julie Herrada at jherrada@umich.edu.

 

Bentley Historical Library
Bentley Historical Library. (From Wkipedia.)

 

Bentley Historical Library

I first learned about the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan at a meeting in the late 1980s of the Michigan Organization for Human Rights at which archivist Christine Weideman was soliciting the organization’s records.  As the premiere repository of Michigan’s archival legacy, the Bentley has been unapologetically proactive in pursuing LGBTQ collections.

Its LGBTQ holdings are impressive.  To list a few, there are the Ruth Ellis papers, the Dignity/Detroit records, the Billie Edwards papers, the James W. Toy papers, the Douglas M. Haller papers, and the MOHR records (which include reel-to-reel recordings of the pioneering radio program Gayly Speaking).  CDs of my oral history interviews are also there, closed to use until 2022.

To see about placing personal papers or organizational records with the Bentley Library, send an email to Dr. Michelle McClellan, the Johanna Meijer Magoon Principal Archivist, at mmcclel@umich.edu.

 

MSU Special Collections
MSU Special Collections reading room.  (From Comic Art & Graphic Novel Podcast.)

 

MSU Special Collections

The Special Collections division of the Michigan State University Libraries has been a vital storehouse of LGBTQ materials since the 1970s thanks to the initiative of longtime bibliographer Anne Tracy, who built and nurtured the collection until her retirement in 2001.  I remember accompaning her to Common Language Bookstore on a visit to Ann Arbor for a presentation with Edward Weber in the late 1990s.  She was so gleeful at seeing the new titles for sale.

Among the significant collections are the papers of poet Terri Jewell, the records of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, the records of Goldenrod Music, the Dignity Archives collection, the papers of Bill Beachler, and the Wearing Gay History collection.

To see about donating to MSU Special Collections, contact Elisa Landaverde, Curator for the LGBTQ+ Collection, at elandav@msu.edu.

 

Reuther Library
Walter P. Reuther Library. (From Wikipedia.)

 

Walter P. Reuther Library

The Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University specializes in documenting labor and urban history.  Several years ago, then-grad student Fernando Perez prodded library staff to up their game in seeking queer materials.  The Reuther has done so admirably with a targeted effort that has included a table at Motor City Pride to raise its profile and solicit new collections.  Outreach archivist Meghan Courtney has also sought to advance curriculum use of its queer holdings.

Key LGBTQ collections include the Andrew Agelink papers, the Detroit Women’s Feminist Health Center records, the Ernest Horne papers, LGBT Detroit records, and the Marvin Marks papers.

For queries about donating materials to the Reuther Library, contact Dr. Louis Jones, field archivist, via email at Louis.Jones@wayne.edu.

 

Invisible No Longer exhibit at DHM
Part of Invisible No Longer exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum. (From Between The Lines.)

 

Detroit Historical Museum

The Detroit Historical Society, through the Detroit Historical Museum, has only recently begun to seek artifacts from the LGBTQ community, but demonstrated its strong commitment to the effort with its first-ever queer exhibition in the summer of 2019, Invisible No Longer: LGBTQ+ Detroit.  As a museum, the museum is particularly interested in physical objects.

Noteworthy in its holdings is an oral history interview for the Detroit 1967 project with former Detroiter Ken Reeves, the first openly gay African American mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

You may reach William Wall-Winkel, Assistant Curator, for further information about giving LGBTQ items to the DHM at  williamw@detroithistorical.org.

 

Smaller institutions and local libraries have also begun to acquire primary source materials related to LGBTQ Michiganders.  They may provide a more appealing or convenient option for individuals and organizations seeking an archival home.

The Genesee Historical Collections Center at UM-Flint includes the records of PRIDE Community Center.  The Central Upper Peninsula and NMU Archives at Northern Michigan University holds the records of the Gay, Bisexual, Lesbian Student Union.  The Grand Rapids Public Library holds the Grand Rapids Lesbian and Gay Organizations Project collection.  The Kalamazoo Public Library holds oral histories with local activists River Artz-Iffland, Cyril Colonius, and Janice Springer.  And the Saugatuck-Douglas Historical Society has papers and photographs of architect Florence Hunn.

 

Whichever archives people might consider, I urge them to remember that donation is a negotiation.  For instance, donors can determine whether to close a portion of their collection for a designated period of time.

So before throwing our history in the dumpster, please consider donating LGBTQ-related newsletters, organizational records, photographs, diaries, scrapbooks, personal letters, and so forth to an archive or library.  While too much has already been lost, there is still time safeguard what has not been lost.

While most archives remain closed in the summer of 2020 due to COVID-19, now may be an optimal time to make an initial inquiry and get the ball rolling.

Tim Retzloff

 

This blog entry has been amended to include information on the Black Lesbian Archives, which I learned about after the original posting.  [Updated July 19, 2020.]

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