Lesbian Herstory Archive Experience

By dlachenm

For my observation I went to the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA) in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where they have been since 1992. The archive itself is a product of the Women’s movement, the sexual revolution and the Gay Liberation movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. A group of women, including Joan Nestle and Deborah Edel, unhappy with sexism in the Gay Academic Union (GAU), branched out, forming a separate women’s consciousness-raising group, which became the basis of the LHA. For the first 15 years Nestle and Edel ran the archive out of Nestle’s apartment on 92nd st, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They relied on volunteers and women of like mind to help organize, catalog and educate people in the community. Their goal was, and still is, to “turn shame into a sense of cherished history, to change the meaning of history to include every woman who had the courage to touch another woman, whether for a night or a lifetime.” Their statement of purpose goes on to say that the archive “exists to gather and preserve records of Lesbian lives and activities so that future generations will have ready access to materials relevant to their lives,” which was and is important because these histories or stories had previously been denied “by patriarchal historians in the interests of the culture which they serve.” Originally they achieved community outreach through the creation of a newsletter and a slide show in the late 1970’s, today they achieve this through readings, workshops and women’s study classes that are free and open to the whole community. The principles the LHA are founded on are fundamentally different than more traditional archives, something that was made very apparent to me upon my visit. Principles like vowing to teach archival skills generationally to members of the lesbian community, making sure the archive is involved in the political struggle of being a lesbian, and ensuring that the archive itself resides physically in the community, as opposed to an academic setting.


So there I found myself on November 17th, walking up the steps of a very unassuming brownstone on the outskirts of Prospect Park, with only a small gay flag in the window, not really sure what to expect upon entering. I was greeted by a woman named Red, an English and Women’s Studies teacher at Hunter College, and a member of the LHA. Straight away I was given a very warm welcome and a tour. The archive encompasses both floors of the brownstone, intermingling areas of living with areas of books, files and organization. Most documents, journals, and records are kept on the 2nd floor, along with their t-shirt collection, button collection, audio tapes and other miscellaneous memorabilia. Downstairs there is a library of sorts, with lesbian pulp fiction, a wonderful collection of literature written by women, reference materials, and even a small children’s book collection. After the tour I was basically left to my own devices, told I could go through and look at whatever I wanted, and to come ask for assistance if I needed it. I have to admit, this was a little overwhelming at first. A feeling akin to being a kid in a candy store, frozen with anticipation, and thoughts of where to begin. So I headed upstairs and started with their Special Collections area. This area was organized by topic, and each topic was kept in a small filing box on a standing bookshelf and on shelves built into a walk-in closet. There were categories like “Dinah Shore and the History of Women’s Golf,” “Lilith Fair,” “Coming Out Stories,” “Places to Love,” “Gay and Lesbian Association of Students (GLASS),” and of course, one of the founder, Joan Nestle. In this same area were cabinet files, broken down into Biographical Files, Geographic Files, Conference Files and Unpublished Files. There were bins of documents, news clippings and ephemera to still be filed, simply resting on top of the cabinet files. The arrangement of everything felt very organic and grassroots. With living lesbians and histories coexisting with those of the past in a figurative sense, but also physically, given that people who run the archive actually live in the same residence. It lends a specific type of energy to the space. On our tour, Red pointed out that the archives had unpublished papers by Gertrude Stein, Alice Walker and Adrienne Rich, an area she frequently accessed for her own research. This area peaked my interest as well and the next thing I know I am sitting on the ground reading an unpublished lecture that Adrienne Rich, a favorite poet of mine, wrote and gave in 1983 at Scripps College in Claremont, California. After, I moved on to look at their small exhibition area, with a small exhibit of clothing and one of pins. Red had said that a lot of people come to look at these exhibits. The clothing exhibit contained a military jacket, some t-shirts and a famous black slip that belonged to Joan Nestle. The pin collection was set up over an area that was once a sink, with lots of pins spread out for viewing, while others were contained in receptacles with small drawers. The pins were a lovely visual timeline of lesbian and female struggle, with sayings such as, “Women Make Policy, Not Coffee,” “We Won’t Go Back. Keep Abortion Legal, April 5, 1995, rally in Washington, D.C.” and “The New Right Preaches The Old Wrongs.” The t-shirt collection was also in this area, although not really on view. It is archived in long garment boxes on the floor and in sliding closet areas built into the wall. After looking at the exhibits, I made my way over to another section of the upstairs that contained the archives of the archives (very meta), boxes of audio tapes containing oral histories (which they have labeled, “love tapes”) and an area of mostly cataloged magazines and scholarly journals. After perusing, I made my way back downstairs, where Red and I listened to 2 oral histories on audio tape, while simultaneously looking at photographs that Morgan Greenwald had taken of Sagaris. Sagaris was a Vermont based, collectively run, feminist institution created in 1975. The goal was to have a place of feminist education, without hierarchy, patriarchy, and a strict structure, where the foremost feminist thinkers could gather, to communicate with and teach other women. Some of the original members and faces found in Greenwald’s photographs include, Rita Mae Brown, Charlotte Bunch, Mary Daly, Dorothy Allison and Susan Sherman. However, listening to the oral histories was the real prize for me. The history we listened to first belonged to Mabel Hampton, one of the original organizers of LHA. Hampton was an African-American woman living on 131st st. in Harlem at the time and she spoke of her coming out story. As she tells it, she walked into a sandwich shop in Jersey City, was so fascinated by a woman that she went home with her and didn’t leave for 40 years. She lived and had a relationship with this woman from 1932 until 1978, when she died. As she saw it, she was “already half in the light, may as well step all the way in,” a lighthearted but courageous move at the time. The second oral history we listened to belonged to a woman named Gerry, who spoke of being born for the first time, at age 39, in a sleazy, secret gay bar in Greenwich Village called The Els Bar, sometime in the late 1940’s. This woman was a real firecracker, she described herself as always being gay, but was “just too stupid to know it.” Until, that is, a woman bought her a beer, kissed her on the palm and told her to come back soon. And even though she lived in Woodstock, she went back the very next night and was never the same. She described bars like The Els Bar and the Pony Stable as being the only places where gay people could mingle socially. The bar was kept in complete darkness, except for a single light on the area where the bartender made drinks and received money. And the dance floor was so small, it was the “size of a postage stamp.” Stories like this deserve to be preserved and shared. They have the power to enlighten and to comfort. It is stories and histories such as these that led me towards the field of library science. My experience that day at the Lesbian Herstory Archives was both priceless and an affirmation of my chosen path.

Presentation and Panel Discussion On Library Services For Immigrants & Refugees

By dlachenm

On Wednesday, October 19th at 6:30pm I attended a presentation and panel discussion about utilizing libraries to provide services for refugees and immigrants at the Goethe-Institut, a non-profit German cultural center, with its own small library, located on the outskirts of Union Square. Inka Jessen started off the event with a presentation about Syrian refugees and the services that are provided for them at the Stuttgart public library in Germany. Stuttgart is Germany’s third largest public library, currently housed in a brand new and quite gorgeous building that has 8 floors, with a huge center area carved out for the main library. Architecturally, the building is a giant cube, where all the windows are illuminated in blue at night. It is the most modern looking library I have ever seen. Jessen is in charge of all immigrant services at the library, a task that has become more important and more difficult with Germany’s open door policy towards Syrian refugees. She is also apart of the Goethe-Institut’s librarian in residence program, that has been running since 2008. Visiting and speaking with several New York City libraries and librarians she is conducting research and learning best practices to bring back to Stuttgart in order to make their refugee and immigrant services all the more better. She is incredibly grateful to be here in New York City, a city with a very rich immigrant history, as well as a bountiful history of immigrant library services and library partnerships with local community organizations.  Jessen details much of her experiences on the Goethe-Institut’s Librarian in Residence blog. However, it is written in German, so while it is very useful for her German colleagues and German-American partners, it has not been very useful for me. According to Jessen, Germany has recorded approximately 900,000 Syrian refugees that are now living among them, 8,500 of which are now living in Stuttgart. The refugees are living in small containers right outside of the library itself or in swiftly built long houses in other areas of town. Currently at Stuttgart, there are a variety of services available for refugees to utilize, aiding them with assimilation into German culture and working towards becoming productive citizens of Germany, at least until they have an opportunity to safely return home. Stuttgart offers internet access in 60 languages, with books and dvds in 26 languages, specifically including Arabic and Urdu language books and dictionaries they were able to obtain with some extra funding. They also provide easy access to German dictionaries, easy to read literature, virtual e-learning classes and on site adult German classes and mentor groups for learning the German language. Stuttgart has a reading aloud project for refugee children, where volunteers, many of them teachers or former teachers, read to Syrian children (many of which are parentless, living in groups) and play language based games to help them get a feel for the German language. Another program they have for teenagers is their Revolution Children project, where teens create and carry out theatrical performances in the library, helping to build community and educate others about the perils of current life in Syria. Volunteers also travel around Stuttgart, visiting the refugee housing areas to read to children and hand out bookpasses. Bookpasses are essentially library cards, in which the owner doesn’t have to have an address, making them a perfect way for refugees to access the library and all its resources.

I would like to part from the event for a moment to speak about several other information services that Germany is providing both Germans and Syrian refugees, as to paint a nice backdrop for the work Jessen is doing in Stuttgart. The German government, aid organizations and volunteers have created apps, websites and online resources to efficiently track and support refugees in their quest to navigate German bureaucracy, learn the German language, find both jobs and housing, and be granted asylum expeditiously. According to CNET reporters, Germany is utilizing technology better than any other country providing asylum for Syrians. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, otherwise known as BAMF, has created Germany’s first centralized database of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers. They have achieved this in 3 months, with 60 software developers working 18-20 hour days in order to pull this off. By leveraging the use of passport scanners, high resolution cameras and digital fingerprinting, which are all cross referenced in the database, they can register someone in 2-3 minutes, as opposed to days and they can approve or reject asylum for an individual in 48 hours, as opposed to 7-8 months. BAMF has also created the Ankommen (Arrival) app for those who have newly arrived, providing them with information about the complexities of the asylum process, the rights they have as refugees, the rights women have living in the western world, and basic German phrases. Bureaucrazy is another app that is on its way, yet still in the development process. It will help refugees navigate German bureaucracy and documentation, as well as provide a map of important places associated with these tasks. Babbel’s language learning app is another great resource for refugees. The monthly subscription for the app is $6.95, but Babbel has waived this fee for refugees, in order to help them learn German. There are also two websites that Syrian refugees have found helpful, Let’s Integrate, which helps foster the connection between locals and refugees by facilitating meetups, and HelpTo, where people can post items and services they are donating, as well as ask for help. It seems that Germany has done a masterful job utilizing technology, with the hopes of fostering integration. (https://www.cnet.com/news/germany-europe-refugee-crisis-technology-merkel/)

Now, back to the event. The second part of the event was a panel discussion with Inka Jessen, Fred Gitner, and Sonia Lin. Sonia Lin is the Policy Director of Immigrant Affairs at the Mayor’s Office. Her job is to support and institute policies and programs that will help aid the well being of the 3 million people who are foreign born in New York City. Fred Gitner is the Assistant Director of the New Americans Program and International Relations at the Queen’s Library. The Queen’s Library is not associated with the NYPL system, it is a non-for-profit corporation with over 65 libraries in its care, serving one of the most ethnically and culturally dense areas in the United States. Lin and Gitner represent two sides of the same coin, the partnership of libraries and local government to help immigrants become better American citizens, while still preserving their ancestral cultures and identities. From the library side of the coin, Gitner spoke of the various language programs geared toward those trying to learn English or for those interested in simply learning another language. One woman he spoke of told him that she wanted to “be part of the global community,” which is why she was thankful for their Korean and Urdu language classes. Some of the other programs they have available at the Queen’s Library include having a medical librarian available to help immigrants with health and health insurance related questions, attorney assistance for helping immigrants apply for citizenship, programs to obtain a high school diploma, and information sessions for people applying for the Diversity Visa green card lottery, done in partnership with the Mayor’s office. The list goes on and on. On the local government side of the coin, Lin was proudest of the IDNYC program. People can go to various libraries to apply for the card, which is accepted as a valid form of identification by the NYPD. They do not have to share their immigration status while applying for the card, can use it as a library card, and are provided with discounts to shows, gyms, prescription drugs, as well as free membership to certain museums and cultural institutions through the card. Benefits provided by this card are particularly important when you consider that of the 3 million immigrants in NYC, ½ million of them are undocumented. Jessen, on the other hand expressed great concern about the image problem libraries in Germany have had in the recent past. This is starting to change as German citizens witness how integral libraries have been with the assimilation of Syrian refugees, bringing renewed attention in the greatest of light. She expressed that she does not know of one library in Germany that provides the types of services that the NYPL, Queen’s Library and Brooklyn Public Library systems do for their populations, especially their immigrant populations. Jessen’s goal here is to absorb as much as she can, from people like Sonia Lin and Fred Gitner, during her librarian residency with the Goethe-Institut, and use that knowledge to transform refugee and immigrant library based services back in Stuttgart. I came to this event thinking that I was going to be schooled on the efficiencies and proficiencies of German libraries, I left a little prouder of the types of services libraries provide for their citizens in the city I call home.

Library As A Political Arena

By dlachenm

Ever since their onset as a public institution, libraries have been political in nature. After the death of Alexander the Great and the subsequent break up of Macedonia in the Hellenistic age, there was a boom in the creation of libraries as institutions of the state, where previous collections of merit were kept privately by the elite. Kings recognized the value information had in a world that was continuously vying for power and control. In many instances they would go to great lengths to obtain scrolls and works of prominent thinkers, which in turn would draw scholars and the elite to their libraries, only furthering their prestige and power. Most notable of these first state-funded libraries was the Library of Alexandria, which became a “comprehensive repository of Greek writings as well as a tool for research” under the Ptolemaic dynasty (http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-fierce-forgotten-library-wars-of-the-ancient-world). Threatened by the new and growing status of the Library of Pergamum the Ptolemaic kings adopted strategies of war to ensure that the Library of Alexandria would remain at the top of the pedestal, by cutting off trade of papyrus and imprisoning scholars wishing to trade sides. While by no means as violent or even overt in its undertaking, I would argue that libraries and fields of librarianship remain arenas of political advocation today, whether used as such or not. What is born political, remains political. As Birdsall puts it, modern “libraries are the creation and instrument of public policy derived from political processes” (Birdsall, 2). And it would be more advantageous to embrace this sentiment than attempt a detached stance of neutrality or impartiality.

In the vein of the political, libraries have long been heralded as institutions embodying democratic values. Ideals of intellectual freedom, free and open access, literacy, and inclusion have been championed by public figures like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and even Keith Richards, with the library specifically in mind (Bushman, 3-4). Many of these ideals are ones that this country claims to be governmentally founded on, but have not been fully realized or enacted until quite recently. In keeping with this tradition and continuing to break with the structure of white, male, elitist hegemony, librarians are in a position to enact change in a professional and academic setting. Whether it is advocating for more politically correct classification and subject headings through the Library of Congress or using displays in local libraries to address social and cultural issues in their specific community, librarians have a great opportunity to channel democratic values, expand perspective, and seek social justice in seemingly small but penetrating ways. There are many in this field who wish to remain apolitical and would like to keep politics out of libraries altogether. This can be exemplified in a fairly recent comment by Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a U.S. Representative of Florida’s 23rd congressional district and member of the Democratic party. In respect to the discussion of the Library of Congress updating the subject heading of ‘illegal alien’ to ‘noncitizen’ or ‘unauthorized immigration,’ she is quoted as saying that the Library of Congress should choose “subject headings without political influence” (http://www.theestablishment.co/2016/07/15/the-surprising-political-power-of-libraries/). I, however, would argue that it is impossible to create an appropriate subject heading for people who wish to be and are not yet citizens of this country without any allusion to politics, just as I would argue that removing politics from the library altogether is impossible. In shadowing both Desmond Tutu and Robert Jensen, the application of neutrality in any professional environment simply does not exist. There will always be a distribution of power and to “either overtly endorse or reject that distribution is, of course, a political choice” (Jensen, 3).  Furthermore, to remain detached from the issue by claiming neutrality is essentially the same as agreeing with the powers that be or the current state of affairs, a specific stance and also a political undertaking. Instead of tiptoeing around this issue or keeping the political nature of ourselves dormant, I propose we embrace it as a catalyst and a much more constructive and productive way to bring about change.

In order to truly and fully express how this can be accomplished, I would like to showcase Jenna Freedman, a blue haired reference librarian at Barnard college, and the work she has done to actively bolster politics in the field of librarianship through her creation of a feminist zine collection at Barnard in 2003. Zines are themselves an anomaly, in that they are an untraditional medium for cataloging in libraries. They are do-it-yourself magazines that run the gamut from handwritten and stapled to professionally printed, serving as a unique form of personal expression on an array of topics and can be considered primary source material about contemporary popular culture. As a self-proclaimed anarchist and punk, it is Freedman’s nature to “critique privileges and challenge social hierarchies,” (Eichhorn, 126) “in favor of egalitarianism and environmentalism and against sexism, racism, and corporate hierarchies” (Eichhorn,126). It is through this lens that she has founded the feminist zine collection at Barnard, which currently consists of more than 1,500 zines in their open stacks collection and over 4,000 zines in their adjoining archive. All of the zines in their open stacks collection are duplicated in their archive for preservation and cataloged in Worldcat, so they are visible to not just Barnard, but the library community at large and available through interlibrary loans (Eichhorn, 128-29). The political and activist nature of this collection is two-fold, encompassing the “actual space of the library and the more conceptual space of the library catalog” (Eichhorn, 129). The fact that Freedman herself is not just a reference librarian, but crosses over the boundaries of special collections librarian, archivist, cataloger, and scholar makes her a defier of professional library tradition within the space of the library. Her decision to catalog the zines was a “way to change the status of the zines,” (Eichhorn, 129) giving them validation and making them as important as any other published material. Additionally, by adding the zines to Worldcat she has given researchers greater access to contemporary feminist material, a “discourse on feminism that, at least until the late 1990’s, was still primarily accessible in private collections” (Eichhorn, 130). There are only a few other collections of zines of this nature, including the Riot Grrrl collection at the New York University and the collection at the Sallie Bingham Center at Duke University. As if this wasn’t enough, Freedman keeps an open dialogue with the producers of the zines in her collection due to the highly personal content in the zines, in the case that they want their name removed or in the case that a female to male transgendered zinester no longer wants their work apart of a feminist collection (Eichhorn 130-31).

In an age where we have just appointed Carla Hayden, a woman and an African-American, as the first person in 214 years to hold the post of Librarian of Congress other than a Caucasian man, it is high time we went the way of Freedman. Her willingness to cross boundaries of librarianship and assert her tenacious beliefs in order to provide greater access to knowledge are most definitely political, as well as something to be admired.

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