Madhu Narayan, Michigan State University
(Published: February 28, 2013)
All lesbian lives are important and welcome at the Archives. Every woman who has had the courage to touch another woman deserves to be remembered here, as do lesbians from all places, from every century and from any political or sexual background. The Archives aims to collect the full range of lesbian experiences, not just the lives of the famous or the published.
From the Lesbian Herstory Archives Principles
... the meaning of archive, its only meaning, comes to it from the Greek arkeheion: initially a house, a domicile, an address, the residence of the superior magistrates, the archons, those who commanded. The citizens who thus held and signified political power were considered to possess the right to make or to represent the law. On account of their publicly recognized authority, it is at their home, in that place which is their house (private house, family house or employee’s house), that official documents are filed.... It is thus, in this domiciliation, in this house arrest, that archives take place.
Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever (2)
I pause for a moment outside #484 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The house in front of me seems no different from the other townhouses lining this quiet street. Indeed, a casual passerby would not be able to tell that this particular townhouse is the site of the famous Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA). At present, the LHA houses some of the most extensive archival collections pertaining to lesbian lives within the United States. Founded in 1974 by a consciousness-raising group, the LHA has persistently argued that the lives of contemporary lesbians are historical. In this view, history is not merely for the deceased or the famous. Instead, for the founders and volunteers of the LHA, it is important to honor the idea that lesbian communities1 are alive and flourishing. One of the goals of the LHA is to resist the narratives of tragedy that are often written upon lesbian communities. It is true that many lesbian women and communities were (and still are) criminalized and persecuted. However, allowing this to become the dominant narrative occludes the important cultural and activist work that many lesbian communities continue to be engaged in. Therefore, as an archival space, the LHA functions not as a stronghold of a tragic past, but as a living space committed to making lesbian histories more visible and accessible.
The LHA works not just as an Archives,2 but also as a home where community members can meet and socialize. In order to sustain this unique blend of communal and archival commitments, the LHA has invented a series of rhetorical strategies that are aimed at inviting community participation. These strategies involve a constant process of persuasion, a deliberate argument about why members of lesbian communities should donate their materials to the Archives and how this will help future generations flourish. Also, important to this process is persuading community members that their lives are historical and worthy of being archived. In this essay, I will demonstrate that in the face of cultural erasure and amnesia, the LHA’s rhetorical strategies work to preserve a strong sense of lesbian community and identity.
In 2006, Rhetoric and Public Affairs invited its writers to reflect on “The Politics of Archival Research.” Charles Morris—who also served as the issue’s editor—penned an essay titled “Archival Queer” in which he insists that “straight archives” silence or ignore queer histories. He writes that “a significant portion of (LGBTQ) history is housed in straight archives and circulate in straight collections.” This creates a need to “queer the archive” (147). In order to recover these histories, Morris writes that “we must all become archival queers. Queer historical voices, and their interrogations, must echo through our epideictic occasion... must inform our own deliberative discourse... and must provide alternative precedents for judicial renderings” (149). Recently (2012) Morris has built on this idea and argued that archival queers are those who “individually and collectively perform inventive, disruptive, and critical accumulations, exhibitions, preservations and transformations of GLBTQ pasts and their presence” (51). He also explains that rhetorical scholars should “take seriously sexuality as a chief influence of rhetorical culture, past and present... Queer movement... will be measured by the common usage of the texts archival queers have assembled and articulated” (149). Morris asks rhetorical scholars to become activists, to go beyond their disciplinary boundaries and insist upon the presence of queer voices within straight history.
Queer activist and writer Qwo-Li Driskill also performs a similar argument whilst describing hir3 experiences at the Newberry Library. While researching hir dissertation, Driskill writes that an archivist at the Newberry informed hir that it would be difficult to find sources pertaining to Cherokee theater in the nineteenth century. However, in the course of hir research, Driskill finds several references to hir topic even though they were deemed “absent” in the archival record. S/he accomplishes this by looking beyond the most visible archival records towards traces of Cherokee theatre history that are hidden from plain sight. This indicates that “the recovery of nineteenth century Cherokee theater has been ignored not because of its absence in the archival record but because of its absence in the minds of many scholars and researchers” (117). This conclusion would not have been possible had Driskill not reimagined hir research practices within the Newberry entirely and looked for the traces of nineteenth century Cherokee theater in unlikely places. For Driskill, reimagining hir relationship to archival spaces involves practicing a set of embodied and emotioned tactics that will (at least momentarily) overturn the alienating rhetoric of these spaces.
Archives are sites of rhetorical power that can be simultaneously welcoming and alienating. Morris asserts “the archive significantly influences what we are able to study, to say, and to teach about rhetorical history, and what we do, as rhetors, with its holdings in our scholarship, in our classrooms, and in the streets. The archive, therefore, should rightly be understood not as a passive receptacle for historical documents and their ‘truths,’ or benign research spaces, but rather as a dynamic site of rhetorical power"4 (115). The alienating rhetoric5 of some archives has served to keep users out entirely, to make them feel as if they do not belong in such spaces. As Joan Nestle, co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, has pointed out, before grassroots archives such as the LHA emerged, many GLBTQ communities felt left out of history; not only did institutional archives seem intimidating, there was also a sense among GLBTQ communities that their life experiences were not considered important by such archives. This created an exigency for the creation of archival spaces that would honor the everyday struggles of GLBTQ communities. Grassroots efforts such as the Lesbian Herstory Archives were started in order to reimagine archives entirely, and to humanize people’s experiences within such spaces. More importantly, the LHA also hoped to create a sense of belonging and safety for lesbian community members.
The LHA especially is grounded in the idea that stories and theories of living lesbians matter; therefore its collection practices are geared towards accumulating the stories of living lesbians. In An Archive of Feelings, Ann Cvetkovich explains that given the supposedly “short” history of homosexuality in official accounts, it has created the imperative for recording histories left out of mainstream accounts, but that nevertheless created the foundation for gay liberation movements that emerged in the 70s. It has also created the historiographical challenge of rethinking what “counts” as historical; Cvetkovich explains that “the stock-in-trade for gay and lesbian archives is ephemera, the term used by archivists and librarians to describe occasional publications and paper documents, material objects and items that fall into the miscellaneous category when being cataloged” (242).
For gay and lesbian archives, the notion of what counts as historical is not “subject to the same categories of inclusion and exclusion as those of a public research archive” (243). As Cvetkovich further explains, “in insisting on the value of marginal and ephemeral materials, the collectors of gay and lesbian archives propose that affects—associated with nostalgia, personal memory, fantasy and trauma—make a document significant. The archive of feelings is both material and immaterial, at once incorporating objects that might not be considered archival and at the same time, resisting documentation, because sex and feelings are too personal or ephemeral to leave records” (243). This revisionist attitude towards history and archival collection would explain why the LHA encourages all living lesbians to donate everything that they consider important about their lives. There is an emerging sense here that the past is happening right now and it has to be carefully recorded and remembered in the present through the collection of everyday artifacts and stories.
By insisting upon the historical value of supposedly ephemeral materials, the LHA has crafted a careful argument about how communal history and memory works; in this view, history and memory are not things meant to be “excavated” in the future or carefully stored away in archives out of the community’s reach; instead, history and memory are constantly collecting around stories and objects in our everyday lives; remembering and honoring such artifacts should be an everyday process that the community participates in. This recursive process of remembering and memorializing provides the community with a sense of its past, present and future.
In Rhetoric and Composition, the LHA has been written about most recently by Kate Davy in her essay “Cultural Memory and the Lesbian Archive.” Davy’s piece is not precisely about the LHA, but about her experiences of researching the Women’s One World (WOW) movement. In this essay, Davy details her visit to the LHA in Brooklyn, including the rather messy process of sorting through their archival materials on WOW. Despite the disordered nature of the Archives, Davy succeeds in finding resources for her research. She also recalls visiting the LHA when it was located in Joan Nestle’s apartment in the Upper West Side of Manhattan where the Archive “opened quite literally in [Nestle’s] pantry in 1976 and by 1990, boxes, file cabinets and piles of materials were everywhere—the living room, the bedroom, the kitchen.” Davy also writes that Nestle’s crammed apartment gave voice to lesbians who had been “silent and silenced” for too long.
I traveled to Brooklyn not to specifically mine archival materials, but to visit the LHA itself; it acts as a living, breathing artifact that keeps lesbian cultures and identities alive. I found that the archival space of the LHA acts as a home and a community space wherein members of the community can come together to create culture and history together. By bringing community members together, the LHA also builds the sense that all lesbians are responsible for collectively shaping lesbian past(s), present(s) and future(s) by sharing their histories and identities.
At Home with the Lesbian Herstory Archives:
I walk up a short flight of stairs and ring the doorbell. As I wait for the door to be opened, I am overtaken by the feeling that I am about to walk into someone’s house and trespass on their privacy. I take a moment to remind myself that the LHA is in fact home to its caretaker who lives on the topmost floor of the townhouse. Since it was founded in 1974, the Lesbian Herstory Archives has always lived in a home. For the first twenty years of its existence, the Archives were housed in the apartment of Joan Nestle, who was one among a group of activist-feminsts involved in founding the LHA. Given that she lived with the LHA for about two decades, her life literally intermingled with the Archives. She was allowed a single bedroom to herself while the Archives took over the rest of her space. When it was housed in Joan’s apartment, the LHA was an interesting conglomeration of personal/public and domestic/professional. Even after the Archives moved to a new location in Brooklyn, a member of the LHA’s collective continues to live with the Archives and take care of it, in much the same way that Joan took care of the Archives during its first twenty years. Thus, the LHA continues its dual legacy of being a domestic and a public space.
Soon the door is opened by an archival intern who works at the LHA. She has helped me arrange this visit and agreed to meet with me on a day when the Archives are closed to the general public. We walk into the house; it is dark and cool in here. I let my eyes adjust to the dim lighting as we walk down the hallway. Right in front of me is a broad wooden staircase leading upstairs. To my right is a doorway leading to a series of interconnected rooms. I am given a tour of the LHA’s space including the first and second floors. The second floor houses the LHA’s “Special Collections” (specifically materials donated by lesbian community members about their lives. The LHA currently has 400 special collections in their Brooklyn location. Other more fragile collections are housed off-site in a special storage facility). I also take a look at the room housing the LHA’s collections of periodicals and newspapers. Everything smells dusty here. There are boxes upon boxes of materials piled everywhere; all of these are materials that are waiting to be processed by volunteers. There is no surface in this Archives that does not contain a piece of lesbian history. Everywhere I look, there are posters, books, buttons and boxes. Even the bathroom is decorated with various plaques celebrating LHA’s coordinators such as Joan Nestle and Mabel Hampton.
As the second epigraph to this article indicates, the connection between archives and houses/homes is not an unusual one. Derrida points out that originally archives were housed in the home of a bureaucrat or government official who had the authority to interpret the law. It was his task to use and interpret archival documents as evidence to protect the nation-state. His home, therefore, was in itself a place of authority. I find it interesting that homes were vested with so much authority and power that they were deemed appropriate to house important documents of the state. Archives were originally housed in the same spaces where people lived and ate and slept. I wonder to what extent the “domestication” of homes led to the institutionalization of archives. To what extent, did the “feminization” of homes make these spaces less authoritative? Indeed, in a footnote on page 4 of Archive Fever, Derrida cites a historian named Sonia Combe who mentions the connections between the archive and the “patriarchive.” They both dangle in front of the reader the idea that many archives are masculinist in nature, intended for the purpose of perpetuating the authority of the fathers. Indeed, the word patri-archy (literally: order of the father) carries the memory of the word “arkhe” from which “archive” is derived. It is not inconceivable that the more homes came to be associated with women, they could not continue to sustain the archives/authority of the fathers.
The Lesbian Herstory Archives reinstates the forgotten connections between homes and archives. This is a place that functions as a home, not just for the materials of the past, but for people as well. While the Archives has an official reading room with a long table for researchers to work, there is also a living room with a couch. Additionally, researchers and volunteers at the LHA are also welcome to use the kitchen. The copier is located in the kitchen. One of the LHA’s volunteer informs me that community members often use the Archives as a space to hang out and read. A floor plan of the Archives reveals that during the process of constructing the LHA’s new space in Brooklyn, the coordinators wanted to preserve the “homeness” of the original building. Hence, they left the parlor and the kitchen on the first floor almost intact. The kitchen and the backyard were envisioned as “center(s) for socializing.” The need to create and maintain a community space alongside an archival space motivated the re-design of the house. The LHA is not just a place for research, but a place for community. A heavy emphasis on socializing and bringing people together indicates the LHA’s commitment to creating joint communal memories. The objects in the LHA have greater value because they are actively used to remember the past. The design of the LHA’s space enacts the idea that the Archives cannot be an isolated building, separate from the community that created it. Instead, the Archives should enact the cultural values of the people who use it the most.
On a second level, the LHA’s design also affirms its commitment to being a place where one’s bodily desires co-mingle with one’s intellectual longings. As a queer archival space, the LHA welcomes all forms of lesbian sexual expression; sexuality is not something one needs to check at the door. Indeed, for many people who visit the LHA, it is a place where they re-discover their desire through archival objects. As Joan Nestle explained to me, the process of archival research is an “erotic exchange.”6
As she put it:
There’s a moment of welcome to the archival experience, put it that way. And for me, I always saw it as a moment of seduction. And people say “Oh Joan, you see everything sexually!” But it was sexual and it was wonderful... to me there is an erotic encounter that happens when someone comes and says “do you have?” and I say “yes” and “you are welcome to it.” That is an incredible moment of an erotic exchange that is the desire to know and the desire to give.
The fact that the LHA exists in a home, the fact that an archivist/coordinator comes out to greet and welcome visitors continues this tradition of “seduction.” Indeed, archival research is often borne out of some desire that is felt in the body; there is a sense of immense bodily gratification and elation in being allowed to access that which we desire. At the LHA, such desires are not condemned as deviant or wrong: instead, the LHA collects particular archival materials because they are representative of lesbian sexual desire across many generations. By preserving these materials, the LHA preserves and affirms the pervasiveness of lesbian sexuality and desire even during times when they were deemed “absent.” When researchers and community members look for materials at the LHA, they are accessing and exploring not just memories, but also the desires of lesbians who came before them. As such, in the context of the LHA, archival research is an erotic encounter because there is always an exchange of desires amongst researchers/community members and the archival materials they handle.
Bringing the Archives to the Community:
At the LHA, no matter how much I tell myself to relax, I am nervous. I am afraid of touching things or handling materials because I am afraid of being reprimanded. My experiences in other institutional archives have trained me to be wary and circumspect. Besides, institutional archives are rarely comfortable. When I think of these spaces, I am reminded of uncomfortable chairs and windowless reading rooms. In contrast, a sense of comfort pervades the space of the LHA. Once we are done with our tour of the LHA, I ask if I could look at photographs of the archives when they were housed in Joan Nestle’s apartment. I am directed to a large filing cabinet in a corner of the reading room and told to help myself. When I hesitate, it is explained to me that most researchers who visit the LHA become nervous when they are asked to seek out materials on their own. However given that the LHA does not believe archivists are “servants” to researchers, everyone is responsible for finding materials on their own.
There is a definite “do-it-yourself” attitude here. However, there are also many signs around the place asking researchers and community members to be careful with materials. I feel strange walking into the Archives’ Special Collections room and hauling acid-free boxes out by myself. In general, it appears that the LHA has to constantly balance the need for preservation with the need for access; the LHA’s mission is to make archival materials available to community members and to place few restrictions on access.7 Therefore, the onus of making sure archival materials remain intact falls on researchers and community members. As I look through archival materials, I feel a great sense of responsibility knowing that these materials are one of a kind. I exercise extra caution and care as I handle documents. But there’s also relief in the knowledge that I am not being monitored, that I am trusted by the LHA to treat the materials carefully.
The LHA has always stayed true to its commitment to be a part of the lesbian community. In the principles laid out by the Archives’ founders, it is noted that the LHA’s archival practices constitute a radical departure from those of other institutional archives. The principles also assert that the Archives will never be housed on an academic campus, which often impose restrictions on access. Instead, the Archives will always be open to lesbian women regardless of race or age or class. Additionally “no academic, political, or sexual credentials will be required for use of the collection.” The LHA’s principles also affirm that archival skills will be taught by “one generation of lesbians to another” and that the community will share in the work of putting the Archives together.
In 1974, once the LHA had been established, a question that loomed large was how to get the word out to community members about the Archives. How to persuade community members that they had a rich history especially when they had long been made to believe that they did not have a past or a present? In the early days, the coordinators reached out to lesbian communities and persuaded them to donate materials by literally taking the Archives to the people. Since the term “archives” might have felt distant and alienating, this process of carrying the LHA’s message to lesbian communities became a way of humanizing the Archives. It also became a way of demonstrating that the Archives was interested in being a part of the community rather than becoming a static space that lived in distant isolation. As Joan Nestle explained:
We made a slideshow very early on. And it was for those 10 years, we took the actual objects themselves, in paper bags and shopping bags to wherever. So as word got out, women would say “Would you come to our living room?” We went to bars, we went to gay centers, we went anywhere, just to say, yes there is this thing... We called it a family album, we called it a place to mourn lovers you have lost, we called it the ending of shame and my phrase for it was turning shame into plentitude. At every slideshow a woman would come up and say, oh but I have this for you or I am so glad I didn’t rip up those old paperbacks or I have these old letters. So we’d bring the message and their response would be immediate. It was about telling a people and these are big grandiloquent words—telling a community of people, of peoples that what had been a source of pain, that what had been a source of shame was really a history that deserved to take its place among all the other national histories.
By utilizing the trope of the family album, the early coordinators turned the Archives into a safe space where it was acceptable to feel and to explore memories that are often absent from institutional spaces. This repeated insistence that the LHA was a space for the community to practice remembering their lovers and lost ones turned it into a communal space rather than alienating repository for documents and artifacts. Since lesbian communities had always been made to feel as if their desires and feelings were deviant and wrong, the LHA’s persuasive strategies worked directly against such attitudes and instantiated the belief that there was nothing to apologize for, that one’s feelings and desires were as important as documents or artifacts and belonged in archives as much as official national histories did. Additionally, by taking the Archives to the community, the LHA created the sense that the Archives were not an all-powerful repository, but that it in fact could not exist without the community. This further created a sense of power and agency amongst community members.
This rhetoric of the LHA as a safe space, not just for documents and artifacts, but for community members, on a physical level, has been repeated persistently in every newsletter published by the Archives since 1975. The LHA utilizes the trope of “coming out” in order to position the Archives as a safe space to reveal ones thoughts and desires without the fear of backlash or judgment. Here, coming out is a process rather than a singular act. As a process, coming out serves to continually assert lesbian presence in the past and the present. Even donating one’s documents and artifacts to the LHA becomes an act of coming out because it signifies power and the courage to revolt against national histories that frequently absent lesbian voices and stories. Additionally, it also makes the Archives a part of the process of coming out, wherein donating materials does not turn them into inert archival documents or artifacts, but instead allows lesbian histories to literally “come out” every single time they are requested or read by other patrons of the LHA. As an archival space, the LHA overturns the metaphor of the closet wherein documents are not closed off forever, but come out over and over again to reinforce the presence and the visibility of lesbians from the past and the present.
While reflecting on the LHA’s collection practices, Maxine Wolfe, a veteran volunteer at the Archives has observed, “the community defines what is important about their lives” (Reid 202). That is, the LHA preserves materials that are not arbitrarily identified by an archivist who is removed from the larger lesbian community. Instead, community members are actively encouraged to donate materials that they consider important about their own lives. Every newsletter published since 1975 contains explicit requests to community members to become historians and interviewers.8 The newsletters ask their readers to seek out other lesbian community members and interview them about their lives. These requests gave community members an opportunity to consider themselves historians and historical subjects; they are participants in the culture and history that they were responsible for creating. For instance, the January 1995 issue of the LHA newsletter carries an extended article that provides step-by-step instructions about donating materials to the Archives. Given the widespread nature of their audience and the constraints of time and distance, in this article the LHA asks its readers to “be archivists of (their) own collection” (Thistlethwaite 4). The article instructs readers about preparing their collections for donation, such as including an outline of major life events; identifying people who appear in letters, pictures, etc.; using archival folders with clear detailed folder headings. The instructions ask readers to “use a soft #1 pencil; pen seeps through eventually. Include notes explaining how memorabilia, flyers and clippings relate to your life.” The article also includes notes about storing collections “in a cool, dry, dark place. Dampness, heat and overexposure to dust and sun encourage paper and electronic records to decay. Keep moldy books and documents away from everything else” (4). Additionally, this article also addresses concerns about property rights and copyright, privacy restrictions, appraisals and tax deductions amongst other things. In other words, it provides a holistic sense of what it means to donate to the LHA and how such donations will be processed.
Additionally, the LHA’s current website also contains explicit instructions to community members for creating special collections. These collections contain the personal papers, letters, emails, photographs, etc. of lesbian community members who may have been relatively anonymous, but nevertheless made an impact within their communities. The LHA urges community members to immediately start creating special collections by compiling their own papers with the intention of donating them to the Archives. The website provides clear instructions for describing materials in a special collection. Such descriptions are mean to make the materials more accessible and understandable to users of the Archives:
By asking potential donors to provide these descriptions, the LHA gives donors the agency to narrate the context around their own materials. 9 This allows donors to be the archivists of their own collections; donors have the power to give as much context as they like and in a way that makes sense to them. Instead of leaving the narration of context to an archivist who may not know them very well, donors make choices about what to include and exclude from their descriptions. For me, this demonstrates the LHA’s commitment to demystifying the process of archiving itself. Community members are educated in the process of creating and maintaining archives over a long period of time. So in a sense, archival science is not seen as an arcane process; instead, it is seen as a deliberate skill that needs to be practiced by every community member to keep the Archives alive. Additionally, such moves to reach out to community members turns them into active and careful documenters of their own life histories; it also gives them a sense of why their lives might be historical and useful to future generations of lesbian women. In this view, all community members can become archivists and historiographers. They are responsible for shaping the histories in which they participate regularly. Community members are left with the sense that they do not have to be carried by the tides of mainstream history, but they can narrate and preserve their own histories in a way that is meaningful to them and others who will follow them.
Recently (2012), Jonathan Alexander and Jackie Rhodes have written that “in creating an archive of queer rhetorical practices, [the authors] acknowledge the continued provisionality and positionality of such practices. They occur at particular times, in particular spaces, for particular and sometimes with often unintended effects. They are rhetorical not only in that they seek to be persuasive, but in that they envision audiences and ways of being that have traditionally been thought unthinkable” (n.p., emphasis mine). The Lesbian Herstory Archives presents an example of an archival space that was “composed” for such an unthinkable audience. The manner in which GLBTQ communities have been repressed historically has also turned them into unthinkable subjects for composition. This presents a rhetorical conundrum: What does it mean to deliberately compose a past for an audience which has been told that their lives are not worthy of being preserved or archived? How to compose for a community that has historically been deemed non-existent? For the LHA, this conundrum could only be resolved by rejecting mainstream notions of archiving that ignore the lives of contemporary lesbians. Instead, the LHA argues for the necessity of archiving and recording the everyday lives of lesbians who are reshaping history and culture in the present. In this approach to archive-building, the decision about what counts as “archival” is not left in the hands of people who have nothing to do with the lesbian community. Instead, the community imagines an audience of lesbians who are not only beneficiaries of the LHA’s legacy, but also potential composers of a joint lesbian past.
As an archival space, the LHA does not want to distance itself from its own communities. Instead, the LHA derives its own identity by being an active participant within lesbian communities. The founders understood that if the LHA sought to change lesbian cultures, then the Archives would have to contribute to those cultures instead of being a mere onlooker itself. As such, the LHA regularly participates in community events such as Pride marches as a way of involving itself in the lives of the communities it depends on. While the LHA depends on community participation in order to be successful, lesbian communities in turn look to the LHA as a marker of identity, as proof of their own existence. Hence the community and the Archives work together to affirm each other’s presence and identity.10
My time at the LHA winds down and I start packing up my belongings. As I prepare to leave, I overhear a conversation between two archival volunteers who have been working alongside me. They are discussing applications for graduate school; one of them bemoans the horrors of the GRE test, a requirement demanded by many institutions. I don’t join in, but I listen intently as they offer comfort and advice to each other. Joan Nestle told me that the LHA has never been a “quiet place.” It has “never been a place without conversation between all its parts: its private self, its public self, its workers and its users...” As I listen to the two women talk, I am reminded again of how the LHA’s public and private selves constantly rub against each other. While the LHA is a workplace for its volunteers and users, it is also a deeply personal space constructed out of myriad desires and feelings that were deemed unthinkable for too long. The public and the private do not contradict each other here; instead, they depend on one another in order to simultaneously create a home and an archival space for lesbian community members. I collect my things and take one last look around the Archives, determined to return at some point in the near future. Near the front door, a guestbook lies open; I sign my name and scribble in a note of thanks. I walk out of the LHA and pull the front door shut behind me. As I walk away, I turn around and gaze back up the street: #484 has yet again blended in with its surroundings, inconspicuously rubbing shoulders with other homes on this quiet street in Brooklyn.
Please note that here I am not talking about a singular expression of lesbian desire or a singular idea of the lesbian body. Indeed, I am not trying to propose a singular definition of what it means to be a lesbian. As a straight woman, I am aware of how definitions can make things invisible, even as they try to create a fixed view of things. My purpose in this essay is not to provide definitions of identity categories and expressions that are very fluid and subject to change. When I use the term “lesbian” in this essay, I am trying to invoke the understanding of the term employed by the LHA. This understanding is reflected in the quote that serves as the epigraph to this essay: “All lesbian lives are important and welcome at the Archives. Every woman who has had the courage to touch another woman deserves to be remembered here...”
It is common practice among archivists to use the term “archives” as opposed to “archive” in the singular. Archivist William Maher has written that while the term “archive” is quite common in academic circles, most North American archivists prefer the term “archives” instead. The LHA also prefers the plural “archives” over the singular “archive.”
Driskill is a Cherokee Two-Spirit/Queer writer, scholar, educator and activist. The pronouns I am using to refer to Driskill here have been established by the writer hirself. Within queer communities, such pronouns are common ways of referring to individuals whose identifications are rooted in multiple gendered identities.
Morris’ ideas about the importance of archives to rhetorical scholarship have been elaborated by many authors in Rhetoric and Composition. Most notably, the edited collections by Kirsch and Rohan (Beyond the Archives 2008) and Ramesey, L’Eplattenier, Sharer and Mastrangelo (Working in the Archives 2010) immediately come to mind. The efforts by scholars such as Cheryl Glen and Jessica Enoch to revise archival and historiographical methodologies continue to enhance our ideas about archival research. In terms of scholarship on queer archives, the work of Jonathan Alexander and Jackie Rhodes cannot be excluded. Their recent articles (2012) on “The Pleasures of the Archive” (published in Enculturation and Technoculture) theorizes a “queer rhetorical archive” in popular discourse such as YouTube videos. They go on to expand on the rhetorical and pedagogical possibilites of such an archive. Recently (2012) Charles Morris edited a special issue of The Quarterly Journal of Speech wherein several authors write about doing archival research in the context of the ACT UP movement’s activist efforts. Even as I put the finishing touches on this draft of this essay, College Composition and Communication has published new articles by Lynee Gaillet, David Gold, Heidi Mckee and Jim Porter. Each of these articles explores issues such as archival ethics, archival methodologies and revisionist historiographies.
I don’t mean to create the impression that all institutional archives are alienating or try to keep users out. Based on my reading on this subject and my conversations with Joan Nestle, I am merely trying to provide a sense of the cultural and rhetorical exigencies that led to the rise of grassroots archives such as the LHA.
I interviewed Joan Nestle about her life with the Lesbian Herstory Archives. Some quotes in this essay are directly excerpted from that interview.
Materials that are deemed sensitive such as pictures/photographs may not be used in publications without explicit permission from donors. Given that a lot of the LHA’s donors are still alive, the Archives tries to be very strict and careful when it comes to such permissions.
While the co-founders of the archives—including Deborah Edel and Joan Nestle—were not trained archivists, later generations of coordinators have gone on to receive degrees in archival studies and have returned to work at the LHA. The earliest coordinators and volunteers were self-taught archivists.
The importance of describing archival collections in terms of their context has been recently elucidated by Shirley Rose and Sammie Morris in their essay “Invisible Hands: Recognizing Archivists’ Work to Make Records Accessible” (2010). The authors of this essay point to the importance of building context for archival collections so that researchers are aware of the original circumstances under which particular archival materials were created. Awareness of context would also allow researchers to know more about the original creators/authors of archival materials.
The manner in which archives and archivists preserve and perpetuate cultural identities has been theorized by Elisabeth Kaplan in her essay “We Are What We Collect, We Collect What We Are” (2000). Kaplan argues, “Archivists appraise, collect, and preserve the props with which notions of identity are built. In turn, notions of identity are confirmed and justified as historical documents [that] validate their authority.” In other words, archives reproduce the identities of specific cultures. This process involves making deliberate choices about what materials to include and exclude from archival collections.
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Reid, Graeme. “‘The History of the Past is the Trust of the Present.’: Preservation and Excavation in the Gay and Lesbian Archives of South Africa.” Eds. Carolyn Hamilton, Verne Harris, Jane Taylor, Michele Pickover, Graeme Reid and Razia Saleh. Refiguring the Archive. Cape Town: David Philip Publishers, 2002. 193 - 208. Print.
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