Reviewed by Susan Freeman
When lesbians and feminists in the 1960s and 1970s organized sexuality- and gender-based liberation movements, they sought information and guidance from the past. They turned to books and libraries to find information about women and lesbians--especially activists like themselves. But history, as recorded by and about men, had little to say about women and virtually nothing to say about lesbians. In fact, activists observed, history was his story.
“Herstory” was thus born as the production of knowledge about women, which challenged the existing male-centered accounts of history. Some women pursued courses, degrees, and scholarship in history departments, often encountering resistance about their choice to study women, especially women-loving women. But if history programs were hostile to feminist and lesbian scholarship, the new, interdisciplinary field of women’s studies served as a source of intellectual community and mutual support. Grassroots organizations and community-based consciousness-raising groups further nurtured the search for women’s and lesbian history. Across the country and around the world, feminists assembled to create alternative institutions built around their curiosities and concerns. One of these was the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA).
Conceived in 1973 by lesbians involved in the activist Gay Academic Union in New York City, the LHA addressed a particularly vexing problem: Researchers in the 1970s could quickly exhaust the published sources on the topic of lesbians in history. But many questions remained unanswered. Had lesbians always existed? What did they look like and how did they behave? How would they find one another? Were they universally condemned by the societies in which they lived?
Activists recognized the need to collect and preserve artifacts of lesbian culture and history, beginning with the tremendous outpouring of materials from the lesbian feminist movement of the 1970s. LHA founders Joan Nestle and Deborah Edel contributed their own personal collections of materials and expanded the holdings with donations from other women: magazines, newspaper clippings, fiction, diaries, organizational files, posters, and oral histories, among other sources, flowed into the archive. The dearth of sources activists had previously encountered at libraries and archives, they realized, was less a result of the scarcity of lesbians in the past and more about the disinterest of most archivists and historians.
Like many archival websites, the LHA has a brick and mortar home as well as a presence on the internet. As “largest and oldest Lesbian archive in the world,” the volunteer-run LHA has moved from pantry to apartment to a building of its own where it currently resides in Brooklyn, N.Y. In 1997, the LHA debuted on the internet, extending information about the organization’s history, mission, and collections. The website also invites financial contributions, contributions to the archive’s holdings, and volunteers and interns to assist the organization. Researchers looking to explore the holdings of the LHA will find an overview of collections; however, very few archival materials are actually featured on the website. (A 1934 Radclyffe Hall letter donated to the archives is an exception; to find the full text of the letter, one must click on Collections, then Publications of the Archives, then Radclyffe Hall Letter.)
The LHA website reflects the passion, ambition, and grassroots style of the organizers, and as such serves as a historical document in itself. It especially reflects the sensibility of the 1990s, when activists cobbled together websites that appear somewhat quaint today, as web design has become professionalized. Website design and language on the site differentiate it from both government and university-affiliated libraries and archives. Not only does the LHA retain in its politicized title the concept of “herstory,” but also the site lists its phone number as 718-768-DYKE, employing a term that connotes lesbian pride. (Pride does not, however, take the form of the gay “rainbow flag,” and the color lavender is used with moderation.)
The link to “Collections” leads to the most informative part of the website. Here visitors to the site can learn a little more about the holdings of the archive, organized by type of material, e.g., audiovisual, books, periodicals, etc. An alphabetical list of periodical holdings is especially impressive, although not specified by dates and issues. Also mixed in with (and poorly distinguished from) the holdings information are entries with advice on how to use the archives, how to conduct oral history interviews, and how to donate personal collections to the archives. A “Special Collections” link leads to a link about the acquisition of tapes, transcripts, and notes from Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis’s research on Buffalo, New York, lesbians for their book Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community (New York: Routledge, 1993). It is unfortunate that highlights such as this are buried deep within the website’s architecture.
The “Exhibits” link on the LHA front page is slightly misleading, given that so many websites now feature online exhibits from their collections. The LHA exhibits page provides links to information on four exhibits, which are traveling exhibits or on display at the archive, not online exhibits. Clicking on these links takes one to an overview for three of the exhibits, including credits, bibliographical information, and a small number of thumbnail-sized images. Developed in the 1990s, these exhibits on lesbian fashion, lesbian pulp fiction cover art, and African-American lesbians reveal some of the curiosities and concerns of the archive’s users and organizers. A fourth exhibit, noted very briefly on the website, is a tribute to Audre Lorde and her donations to the LHA.
Aside from the casual or curious visitor, most who are interested in the archive will need to schedule a visit or at least communicate with someone from the organization. The “Contact Us” link gives the mailing address and phone number, but no email address. Researchers will want to allow plenty of advance notice, since volunteers pick up mail once a week and retrieve phone messages twice a week. The LHA is “free and open to the public” and does not require any credentials to use its materials.
The archive is clearly a community institution that thrives on the countless volunteer hours of dedicated supporters. An updated “Calendar” link from the homepage specifies upcoming events, volunteer nights, as well as hours, location, and contact information. Visitors are urged to stop in on a Wednesday work night or during other open hours. A visitor with skills for improving the website, or financial contributions for hiring a web designer, I suspect, would be especially welcome. The LHA deserves a presence on the internet that showcases its many treasures and tremendous potential for shaping the way we construct the lesbian past, present, and future.
Susan Freeman visited a lesbian archives for the first time in 1994. Her research on Cincinnati lesbian feminist community in the 1970s relied heavily on the Ohio Lesbian Archives and its energetic founders and coordinators. Her current work is on girls and sex education in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Women's Studies at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
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