The GLBT Archives have a really interesting short section in their new newsletter, featuring Gayle Rubin. A pioneer of feminist theory, queer theory and leather history, Gayle S. Rubin is a founding member of the GLBT Historical Society and an associate professor of anthropology, women’s studies and comparative literature at the University of Michigan. Her work is essential reading for my law and sexuality students and students of sexuality around the world.
The short piece asks three questions about archives:
How do archival collections like those held by the GLBT Historical Society support the production of knowledge about queer cultures?
Without primary source material, we are “people without a history.” Our knowledge tends to be mired at the level of anecdote and circulating assumptions that can’t be checked against evidence. We are stuck with mythologies, some positive and some negative, whose veracity cannot be ascertained. There are so many things that one hears, things that “everyone knows,” that actually turn out to be superficial, misleading or wrong. Only primary sources allow us to assess such ideas and claims. In addition, there are important stories that have been lost or buried or forgotten that can be resurrected through archival collections and oral histories.
University libraries have started developing GLBT special collections. Does that mean we no longer need community-based GLBT archives?
I welcome the entry of university libraries into these fields, but they have limitations. Focused topical collections often depend on some individual within the library system and do not always continue if that person leaves. In addition, university libraries may not be as comfortable about collecting certain materials or making them accessible — for example, sexually explicit materials or those pertaining to various queer subcultures. Moreover, public institutions may be subject to political pressures. So a certain amount of redundancy is a very good thing: Having material dispersed among different kinds of institutions and in different locations makes it more likely to survive unpredictable events and unknown futures.
What can we do to ensure that community-based GLBT archives continue to grow and thrive?
There is sometimes a lack of appreciation for what a Herculean task it is to develop and maintain institutions such as the GLBT Historical Society and its museum. They are often taken for granted, or treated as if they are as stable, well funded and well staffed as mainstream institutions. When I am in the museum or at the archives, I can only marvel at their existence and be grateful for all the work that has gone into the fact that they are here. Perhaps this is particularly poignant for me because I remember when we did not have them and I know what it has taken to get to this point. The GLBT Historical Society and The GLBT History Museum are among the most important accomplishments of the LGBT movement in San Francisco — but they are works in progress. To continue to grow and thrive, they need volunteer energy, money to operate, and donations of research materials. At a minimum, please understand what these places are, what it takes to have them, and give them the recognition and appreciation that they so richly deserve. The Historical Society is a queer public good and a community treasure, but like all such institutions, it requires maintenance and cultivation. As I recently wrote, those who fail to secure the transmission of their histories are doomed to lose them.