The Emergence and Survival of Four Lesbian and Gay Archives
My dissertation project uses a multiple case study design to look at the trajectories of four institutionalized lesbian and gay archives. I use social movement theory to better understand how these organizations emerged, how they have developed, and which strategies they use to sustain themselves over time. It is my contention that queer archival institutions function as social movement organizations to acquire, accumulate, and distribute resources for the purpose of supporting queer social movements.
By positioning my analytical lens to emphasize the activist orientations of these institutions, my dissertation initiates a dialogue between archival studies, sexuality studies, and social movement studies to build on the many modes of understanding ‘queer archives’ and their relationships to the communities they serve.
My specific research questions are:
What resource constraints and ideological challenges do queer archives experience and how have these changed over time?
How have queer archives responded to political constraints and opportunities?
Why have queer archives pursued the particular strategic actions they have to sustain themselves over time and what might be the political, scholarly, and social ramifications of these particular strategies?
Queer: I use ‘queer’ in this project in its most inclusive meaning as a way to discuss all people whose gender and sexuality has been historically understood as non-heteronormative. This includes, but is certainly not limited to those people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and two-spirited.
Archives: I situate my work in what Jessie Lymn (2013) has called the ‘archives proper’. That is, the archives that I am interested in researching are those brick-and-mortar institutions broadly concerned with the tasks of acquiring, preserving and making accessible records of enduring value.
Trajectory: Most dictonaries define 'trajectory' as a path, progression, or line of development. I prefer this term to 'life cycle', which implies that there are a series of predictable stages that an organization navigates through as it matures over time. Although my preliminary research on queer archives suggestst that there are common experiences among these organizations, there is niether a predicable series of stages not end point.
Social Movement: Following Tilly (2004), I consider social movements to be one form of contentious politics that involve (i) a sustained, organized campaign designed to bring about collective claims on a target audience; (ii) a combination of strategies and tactics that comprise a repertoire of collective action; and (iii) public representation or displays of the worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment of movement participants (53). Examples of social movements include: the labour movement, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, and the gay liberation movement. Countermovements are similar to the above, but emerge in response to social change. These include: the anti-choice/pro-life movement, the anti-environmentalist movement, and the father's rights movement.
Social Movement Organization (SMO): The concept of a SMO was first articlated by McCarthy & Zald (1977) in their foundational paper, "Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory." According to resource mobilization theory, collective action requires organized efforts to acquire, distribute and mobilize resources. SMOs are organizations that emerge to faciliate resource managment for purpose of collective action for social change. Examples include: Greenpeace, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
This project, to the best of my knowledge, is the first to position an archival institution as a social movement organization.
Strategic Action: According to Jasper (2004), strategy is cnetral to the decision-making process in social movement organzations. For example, organizations must decide on how to deploy limited resources to increase the effectiveness of mobilization. They must also determine how they will present themselves to their members and to the public. Movement organizations may also form alliances with one another as a strategy to improve or maintain legitimacy and share resources, even if these alliances appear to compromise some movement goals. They can also shift their goals to align better with those of major funders or supporters. Jasper suggests that social movement organizations might also chose to keep their decisions “off the table” as a way to continue their activist work while appearing to serve a less contentious purpose (11).
This project examines how queer archives are restricted in their capacities to achieve their goals by a range of cultural and institutional factors and what strategies have been employed to manage limited resources.
This project follows a multiple case study design. Case studies are commonly used in social movement research. The utility of a case study is that it generates a richly detailed, thick elaboration of a particular instance of activity. Because this is the first time queer archives have been studied from an activist orientation in this manner, I am most comfortable following an established research strategy. This allows me to compare my findings to other studies on SMOs and evaluate any coherence or discordance among studies. This, in turn, may contribute to more generalizable knowledge.
Two guidebooks have been invaluable in helping me to develop my research design:
John Lofland. Social Movement Organizations. Guide to Research on Insurgent Realities. Los Angeles, CA: Aldine Books, 1996.
Bert Klandermans & Suzanne Staggenborg, eds. Methods of Social Movement Research. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
In all cases, data collection was focused on learning more about the ways in which the archives reflect the ideologies of the social movements from which they emerge and the strategic actions they have adopted to both contribute to the social movement and sustain themselves as organizations.
Findings from the study contribute to social movement theory, which does not currently consider the role of archives in grassroots social movements. This study also contributes to archival studies literature by introducing the language of social movement theory to discuss the work of community archives that are constituted within social movements and/or collective actions. Community (queer) archivists and institutional archivists also benefit from the study because it will be the first empirical study to look at queer archives through an activist lens to provide examples of how the four case institutions have made decisions about their short- and long-term survival in light of changing socio-political contexts.
The main methods of data collection was as follows:
The identification and analysis of the relevant literature.
The Lesbian Herstory Archives
The New York-based Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA) is home to the world’s largest collection of materials by and about lesbians and their communities. The LHA was founded in 1974, in the Upper West Side Manhattan apartment of Deborah Edel and Joan Nestle. It later moved to its now permanent location in a Park Slope brownstone, where it continues to be nurtured by a committed group of volunteers and coordinators. The LHA is a non-hierarchical, community-funded grassroots organization that does not charge for service, nor does it seek government funding. Many of its guiding principles are a radical departure from conventional archival practices. For example, the LHA is accessible to all lesbian women and no academic, political or sexual credentials will be required to use the collection. There is also a commitment to keep the collection whole, within the community, and in the care of a living caretaker. The LHA's mission is to share the material with the community it serves and to remain involved in the political struggles of all lesbians.
The Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA)
The Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (CLGA), founded in Toronto as the Canadian Gay Liberation Archives in 1973, is the largest autonomous queer archives in the world. The CLGA grew out of the working files of The Body Politic, Canada’s gay liberation newspaper of record from 1971 to 1987. For many years, Pink Triangle Press (the collective that published The Body Politic) and the archives were physically and operationally intertwined. After gaining independence from Pink Triangle Press in 1992, the CLGA went on to occupy a number of cramped offices before acquiring, renovating and moving to a heritage home in 2009. Today, the CLGA is sustained through the kind donations of private supporters and a cast of volunteers, many of whom have worked with the archives for more than 30 years. The CLGA has one paid staff member, the General Manager, who is responsible for overseeing the day-to-day functions of the institution.
The ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives
The ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives began as the private collection of Jim Kepner, a member of the Mattachine Society, an early homophile organization founded in 1951. Kepner, along with educator and activist W. Dorr Legg, founded ONE, Inc. in 1952 and published their first issue of ONE Magazine the following year. Several years later, the two men helped found ONE Institute, an educational arm of the organization that conducted seminar and published a journal for and about homosexuals. In 1971, Kepner named his colleciton the Western Gay Archives and later moved it to a storefront space in Hollywood where it grew in size and scope. In 1994, the colleciton was merged with the ONE Institute. Today, the ONE Archives is recognized as the oldest active Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning (LGBTQ) organization in the United States and the largest repository of LGBTQ materials in the world.
After Kepner's death in 1997, the ONE Archives moved into its current location at 909 West Adams Boulevard, a building provided by the University of Southern California (USC). In 2004, the collection was renamed the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives and, in 2010, it became a part of USC Libraries.
The June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives
The June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives began in Oakland, California, as a private collection of material related to lesbian culture and experiences. It was adopted by the Connexxus Women’s Center/Centro de Mujeres in 1986, and moved to Los Angeles, where it acquired its present name after the death of June Mazer, to honor her work as a community activist and invaluable supporter of the Archives. In 1989, the Archives moved into its current home at 626 N. Robertson Boulevard, a building owned by the City of West Hollywood. Today, the archives is the the sole archival repository on the West Coast dedicated to preserving lesbian and feminist history. Its holdings include over 3500 books, 1000 unique video and audio recordings, and close to a hundred unprocessed. The Mazer Archives also has a formal partenship with the UCLA Centre for the Study of Women and the UCLA Library to make its materials more accessible to researchers and the public.
Interviews with participants took place in Fall 2013 and Winter 2014. I met with key experts (staff, volunteers, founding members, and other affiliated professionals) to learn more about their institutions. I was particularly interested in learning about how these archives have managed resources and dealt with ideological challenges over time. Interviews were about one hour in duration each and took place in person, if possible.
I interviewed 6-10 key participants at each of the four archives that comprise my case studies.
This is a critical juncture in the histories of queer archives. As a cohort of activist community archives, these institions have matured at the same time that queer social movements have achieved significant progress in many jurisdictions. With founding members and long-time volunteers nearing retirement, and political interests shifting, queer archives are also in flux.
Other cohorts of activist archives have also experienced this critical juncture, e.g., labour archives, women’s collections, civil rights movement archives. The 'decline' of these cohorts has not always produced a satisfactory relationship between communities and their records. There is, however, little empirical research about these kinds of archives to help guide decisions-making for the future.
This project not only traces the histories of these organizations to get a better sense of how they contribute to and are impacted by changes in social movement activities, but findings will also help queer archives anticipate possible future trajectories. As academic work in the area of sexual diversity studies grows, universities and heritage institutions have expressed greater interest in acquiring queer collections. There also appears to be a strong will to keep these collections in the communities they serve. Queer archives and their advocates must consider the challenges and opportunities that these opportunities present.
Findings shed light on the work of queer archives from an activist orientation. This should not only help professional archivists to better understand these organizations and anticipate any opportunities and challenges they may encounter when partnering with queer archives or acquiring their collections, but also call attention to some of the limitations of traditional heritage or archival studies approaches to understanding these kinds of community-based collections.