Archiving against erasure

Counter-archiving to disrupt dominant historical narratives and centre our untold stories.

A collection of queer and activist ephemera is laid out on the table.

There are many decisions to be made when building an archive. These decisions have often been made by individuals in positions of privilege or by institutions themselves. This means that archives have often been used to perpetuate misinformation or selective information in the name of crafting historical narratives that maintain current power structures. 

This potential misuse of archives, though, does not take away from their importance. It also demonstrates the potential of archives to communicate ideologies, use historical narratives to influence contemporary communities, and give certain identities or legacies authority and validation. This potential can be used to perpetuate or disrupt social narratives.1

To this end, archives have also been taken up by activists and marginalized communities looking to preserve their histories for future generations. The creators of these counter-archives make decisions along the way that intentionally disrupt traditional archival practice to counter the spread of misinformation, question the status of the institutional archive, and validate historical legacies that have previously been erased by traditional archival practice.

The first counter-archive I discovered was the Lesbian Herstory Archive (LHA) in New York. The LHA began in the apartment of Joan Nestle and Deborah Edel in the 1970s. The LHA now resides in a house in Brooklyn. Its founders were motivated to begin archiving lesbian herstory because they “realized that lesbian history was disappearing as quickly as it was being made. [Their] mission is to gather and preserve records of Lesbian lives and activies so that future generations will have ready access to materials relevant to their lives.”

The LHA is not just collecting, though. They are collecting according to standards established by the community and transparently displayed on their website. There are many archivists and scholars calling for transparency because they recognize that archiving is always informed by a point of view and that it is better to be honest about what point of view we are working from. 2

This practice of transparency recognizes the inherently political nature of galleries and archives. For the LHA these standards inform what they collect: they take all objects (posters, buttons, unpublished papers, art work, etc.) from everyone who identifies as a lesbian. Things like buttons, which might not be considered worthy of a traditional gallery or museum space, are valued here. These smaller more day-to-day objects are called ephemera. 

By collecting such a wide range of objects from a wide range of people the LHA is recognizing and preserving the diversity and intersectionality of lesbian lives.

These community standards also affect who sees the collections and how they see them. Often when we go into an archive – like the local University of Victoria (UVic) special collections or internationally popularized archives like the British Library – we need to know exactly what we are looking for, know how to sign it out, bring ID, and then wait while the librarian disappears into the back to get the object we requested. There are security reasons for this, apparently, but it also creates a lot of barriers. We need ID first of all, but we also require a pre-existing knowledge of what is in the collection. This also means we do not get to see how the objects are stored or how other objects are organized around them. 

This is not the system at the LHA. To ensure accessibility and transparency the LHA operates with an open-stacks system. Anyone can come in and browse the collection at their leisure. There is no rush. Everyone can dwell, explore, and connect to their history.

These community standards and goals also affect how the LHA runs administratively. They do not take any institutional funding – no big lump sums from one organization that might have an agenda of its own – no government grants. Instead, it runs entirely on volunteers and individual donations. It is also a house and therefore physically separate from any institutions. As it critiques institutional spaces, it is separate from those spaces. 

The LHA is very committed to the hominess of the house and so a member of the collective always lives there to ensure it feels like a lived-in, welcoming space.

Anne Cvetkovich describes it as “more of a community centre than a research institution.”3

Counter-archives must always be adaptable to the needs of the communities they serve. During the Covid-19 pandemic the LHA has continued to be available. They have digital collections available for exploring for those of us not in New York, and have also hosted online events such as “Black Lesbian Futures” in April 2021. 

As we look ahead to disrupting archival practice and being accountable to the history of misinformation created by traditional archives, we do not need to start from nothing. The LHA is one of many counter-archives with practices that can be used to guide us forward as we explore what alternate forms are available for creating (and recreating) bodies of [historical/herstorical/hirstorical] information.

Notes

  1. [DWAN] Digital Women’s Archive North. “The Feminists Are Cackling in the Archive.” Feminist Review, no. 115 (2017): 155-64. Accessed May 17, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1057%2Fs41305-017-0024-4.
  2. Kim, Dorothy. “Remaking History: Lesbian Feminist Historical Methods in the Digital Humanities,” in Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities, ed. Elizabeth Losh and Jaqueline Wernimont. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (2018) 131-156.
  3. Anne Cvetkovich. “In the Archive of Lesbian Feelings,” in An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2003,  241.] The photocopier is next to the kitchen appliances and the reading room is in the living room.

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