|Photo of the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives|
Joseph Hawkins is the current Director of the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California Libraries, the oldest active LGBTIQ organization in the United States and the largest collection of LGBTQ materials in the world. In this essay, he shares his fifteen years of experience and discusses the transition of the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives from a community collection to a professional archive that cooperates with other institutions in the region, organizes exhibitions and events and hosts more than "7,000 posters, 12,500 videotapes and films, 40,000 books, 9,800 periodical titles and 150,000 buttons, stickers, and other kinds of ephemera".
What do you think about Joseph Hawkins' claim that a "the role of a queer archive should be to preserve the histories of a movement for social equality and not to participate in radical or even moderate activist efforts"? What other insights can you draw from his extensive experience?
From Community Collection to Professional Archives: A Journey
Joseph R. Hawkins, Ph.D
ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at
The University of Southern California
I began my work with ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives over fifteen years ago while a graduate student. My then mentor and dissertation advisor Walter L. Williams asked that I go to the home of recently deceased Los Angeles gay leader Don Slater and his partner Tony Reyes. Reyes, bereft because his partner had just died, said he was “sick of the movement” and stood hurling things into a large bin as I arrived. I spent the next week loading and unloading a large truck with the records of ONE Institute and the Homosexual Information Center from Slater and Reyes’s dusty basement. There was heady emotion in those days as there is now. Organizations split up, professionalized and disappeared at a scary pace and ONE was no exception. Fissions, thefts, disagreements, and poverty plagued the archive for years. It is this tension between the preservation of history and the zeal of activism that I want to address. I want to examine issues such as a demand for activism in the archive, programming as an expensive form of access, a lack of community attention to funding the archives, and the emergence of the archives as museums and cultural centers that confront the emergence, on a global scale, of a number of first-rate LGBTQ archives.
Most queer collections, like ONE Archives, evolved from the potent emotional contexts of activism championed by activist leaders who possessed an enormous passion for the creation of a movement for social equality for gender-variant peoples. Although they saved and even hoarded mementos of their activities, few of these leaders, if any, had knowledge of what is entailed in the care and preservation of rare historical documents. ONE Archives too started, not as an archives, but as an organization at the vanguard of the struggles for LGBTQ equality in the United States. Publishing the first nationally distributed queer magazine in America beginning in 1953, ONE paved the way for many of the civil rights institutions for LGBT peoples in the United States. However, the care and feeding of an archive, as I have learned along the way, requires a set of skills completely different from those used in social activism, and which are often offensive or antithetical to activist agendas. Here based on over fifteen years of experience in one of the largest LGBTQ archives in the world, I want to call attention to some of the problems I have witnessed in the transition from a community-based archive to a fully professional institution.
While working as an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California, in 2002 I was asked by my former advisor to join the board of ONE. Although trained as an anthropologist whose area specialty is male homosexuality in the post-Taisho period in Japan, and not as an archivist, I immediately became deeply involved with ONE’s mission. ONE had until that time been only mildly successful in grant fundraising and preserving and providing access to its already vast and unruly collections. I was soon to discover that much of this had to do with the demands made on it by community leaders more interested in activism than archiving.
Soon I was elected president of the organization and worked hard to begin grant writing efforts and to professionalize the, by then, fifty year old organization. It was an extremely lean time. Few of the truly dedicated, well meaning volunteers understood even the most basic principles of archival best practices. There was little in the way of an acid-free environment to be found in the building, a converted fraternity house we occupied at the largesse of the University of Southern California. When researchers came, they often depended on the memory of a volunteer or our single staff member to find what they needed. In the process of researching, many scholars altered the intellectual order of the papers they perused. We often found materials that researchers needed long after they had gone.
Private donations for the support of staff and operations generally depended on the death of a former donor who had mentioned ONE in his or her estate. The annual budget in the early 2000s was seldom in excess of $75,000. We had no archivists, a staff of one fledgling librarian, and almost no fundraising experience. Those that did donate materials entrusted us with legacies that we were barely able to preserve.
Outside our walls, the records of the early LGBT movement in America were decaying and being thrown away and there was often little we could do about it. When someone did leave materials to ONE during those early years and I visited their home, I would meet relatives, caregivers, and partners who rightly saw the bequest to us as a legacy bearing testimony to their loved one’s worth in life and as a record of their personal struggle for equality.
ONE’s community supporters were passionately devoted to ONE, whether they volunteered, gave money, or expressed their aspirations for the organization. However, community voices in the archives often focused on continuing to affect social change at the expense of preservation efforts. Many activists wanted ONE, the archive, to do what ONE, the activist organization, had done for many years, i.e. raise hell, challenge the status quo, struggle for social equality, and fight to champion human rights. All these are admirable goals; however, by the time I became a part of ONE it was already one of the largest LGBTQ collections on the planet. The demands of the collections gradually became more pressing than any community effort for social change. The board came to understand its mission not to be activists for LGBTQ peoples in a direct way but to insure the preservation of their history. Nevertheless, most of the members of the community then, and many even now, still wanted us to focus on social change at the expense of caring for our materials.
It quickly became clear to me that the role of a queer archive should be to preserve the histories of a movement for social equality and not to participate in radical or even moderate activist efforts. I often say we are like Switzerland--we don’t take sides, we try to be productive and neutral. I know this sentiment will ruffle feathers, but we cannot fail in our mission to preserve collections because we are denied a grant for partisan reasons, or are so busy doing programming that we have no funds for preservation and salaries. Furthermore, the very act of preserving the past is an act of defiance for a people whose lives have often been thought of as not worth preserving.
As George Orwell so aptly said, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past” (Orwell 1954). We in queer archives, libraries, museums, and special collections accept a solemn duty to preserve the past and ensure the future of queer people. In order to do this we must make rational choices to do what we know how to do: preserve our community’s historical records, such as those of activists and their organizations.
Professionalism and Volunteers
Perhaps nothing has changed the way that ONE Archives operates more than the arrival of archival professionals. We still boast a healthy number of regular volunteers, some of whom have now been with us for almost thirty years. These volunteers provide invaluable support for the collections as well as vast amounts of institutional memory. But lay volunteers can’t perform effectively without the leadership and guidance of professionals.
After receiving our first large grant we were able to hire three full-time archival professionals for a three-year period. The change was immediate and palpable. Aside from the organizational aspects of the collections, which began to find their way into acid free environments and online access, the materials the archivists processed began to inform the ways the institution saw its own history.
Having already worked at the archives for four years, I began to be aware of materials that I had no idea even existed. Small collections emerged from previously unknown locations. Archivists separated boxes of comingled materials into identifiable collections. Once materials were in better order researchers suddenly appeared from out of the blue. Over a two-year period we doubled the number of researchers who visited our institution and then doubled them again over the next two.
Of course, success brought demands. Researchers wanted the archivists’ help in finding collections. Folks began to phone in requests. Institutions wanted displays for Pride Month. Everyone from high schools’ Gay Students Alliances (GSA) to interest groups from major corporations wanted tours and information. We continue to struggle to meet these needs while keeping our archivists processing materials. At the same time, we are proud that the quality of our collections leads the public to want to understand LGBTQ history and culture.
In addition to our materials being in better order, we began to experience an increase in acquisitions as well. As potential donors saw that the materials gifted to our institution were preserved, accessible, and used by researchers, they had less hesitation about turning over their legacies to us. Some even gave us funds to process their own materials. In all, the change began to focus on the value of processing materials, which provided greater access, greater discoverability, and greater peace of mind to those in the community who wanted to preserve their history for future generations.
Fundraising and Boards
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the changes that overcame our institution as we moved from a community archive to a professional one was the gradual realization that no amount of fundraising by an independent non-profit board would ever be enough to fund the enormous demands made by our collections. After many consultants, advisors, and strategic retreats to discuss tactics for fundraising success, it became abundantly clear that boards prefer to do programming over fundraising, they seldom understand fully the role of an archive, and they often are motivated as much by personal interests (which most often include their genuine desire to do good work) as by their desire to care for the collections. Furthermore, it became apparent that even if the board had embraced fundraising, we would never have been able to maintain the scope of fundraising necessary for our collections over the long haul.
Also, the board worked as no board should have to. That is, the board’s members were responsible for the daily operations of the archive, for ensuring programmatic success, and for raising the funds necessary to keep processing and research ongoing. The board oversaw human resources, including payroll, hiring and firing, health benefits, and insurance all without the aid or experience of a full-time staff. The everyday oversight of staff is difficult when employees are paid to do a job and you as a board member are a volunteer. We did our own information technology, website, collections acquisition, publicity, and community interface. For a board of twelve, all with full-time jobs, this was daunting to say the least.
By 2008, the board had become convinced that the long-term security of the collections necessitated that they become part of the University of Southern California Libraries, and by 2010, an agreement was reached. There are a number of reasons how this was able to come about. First, as has already been discussed, the board realized that no amount of fundraising was going to be able to support the bourgeoning collections. With over 6,000 linear feet of archival materials, we were just too big to be supported by a small non-profit alone. Additionally, the task of being board president had become a full–time job and needed to be permanently funded. And finally, a new dean came to USC who was supportive of our becoming a part of the larger university context.
Certainly there were supporters and opponents to the merger, both on the board and in the community. Some were concerned that we would be “swallowed up” by an academic institution and lose our grassroots identity. However, in many ways a grass-roots identity doesn’t serve an institution beyond its entrepreneurial stage. Donors are investors—they want to see solid vision and follow-through: they want to know you’ll be around in ten years. A major donor once said to me that our misgivings about being a part of the “straight” mainstream university were caused by our own inability to cope with our success. He said that he felt we were winning hearts and minds and did not need to fear as we once did that we would be betrayed by society-at-large, but that we had been persecuted for so long we could not stop fighting.
Perhaps the most interesting change was that community members who had said they cherished our independent status, suddenly felt comfortable to make planned gifts and donations that they would not have felt secure about before. This was shocking to me. Community supporters who had been unwilling to give us anything but small amounts are, now that USC provides a more solid and secure long-term environment, interested in giving us their legacy donations. Because of this response, we are now initiating an Endowment Campaign, which we hope will provide funding and care for the collections in perpetuity.
More Product, Less Processing (MPLP)
With the publication of the Miesner Green essay (2005), many granting agencies began to focus on what is often called “quick and dirty” processing. That may sound good in theory and sometimes it is practical; however, archives who deal with gendered materials are well aware of the difficulties of such processing. Many acquisitions have scant original order because they come from non-profit environments where there were no full-time employees or secure funding sources. These sorts of collections must be entirely rehoused and meticulously processed to properly preserve the materials and provide the descriptive control necessary for access by researchers. Such requirements make for a tense environment in a small-scale archive. Someone with authority needs to decide whether some collections will need more than MPLP or will be fine with a quick and dirty processing. This may seem trivial, but when collections are in a state of utter chaos, proper preservation and detailed finding aids make a great deal of difference in the long-term use and sustainability of a collection.
Another problem that has made MPLP processing difficult is that so much material is no longer in paper format. Rehousing photographs, audiotapes, videotapes, buttons, matchbooks and other ephemera is time consuming, expensive, and requires a different set of skills than does straightforward archival paper processing.
Art, Ephemera, and Audiovisual materials
ONE houses 7,000 posters, 12,500 videotapes and films, 40,000 books, 9,800 periodical titles and 150,000 buttons, stickers, and other kinds of ephemera. As a single institution, the scope of the collections makes bringing it all under control difficult. Our solution has been to partner with a number of other organizations to help with the task. For instance, in 2005, we deposited our films and videos at the University of California Los Angeles’s Film and Television Archives under the auspice of the Outfest Legacy Project. Outfest, the local film festival, developed Legacy to preserve LGBTQ films. Their new state-of-the-art cold storage facility will insure that fragile materials on magnetic tape or film survive for another generation, while the electronic copies reside at ONE and are easily accessible.
Another approach has been to write collaborative grants with other institutions that will help us to preserve materials that are beyond the resources of our single institution to preserve. Last year we wrote a Grammy Grant to preserve the audiotapes of the longest-running queer radio program in Los Angeles, Pacifica Radio’s IMRU; the grant was denied, but we will reapply this year.
In 2010, we applied to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles to be a part of the Pacific Standard Time (PST) exhibitions. The exhibitions, which included 60 Southern California cultural institutions examined the role of Southern California artists in the period from 1950-1980, a period that coincidentally paralleled the emergence of the early LGBT civil rights movement. In our ignorance, we assumed that once the Getty accepted our proposal, they would fund our exhibition as they had the other cultural institutions’. Although that funding never materialized, our association with the Getty allowed us to leverage a presence in the arts community and to raise over $120,000 in a blend of private donations and a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation. Furthermore, ONE’s profile benefited greatly from the exposure provided by the exhibition and the widespread coverage the PST exhibitions in general received in the Los Angeles area media.
However, in order to produce the exhibit, we needed a professional expertise in art collections that our archivists lacked. We enlisted the aid of two recently graduated University of Southern California students, one a Masters in Fine Arts, the other a Bachelor in Fine Arts. As volunteers who valued the experience and credit, they worked tirelessly along with two part-time employees and brought 50% of our 4000-piece arts collections under control. Images were taken with a relatively inexpensive digital camera, rudimentary metadata was developed, and the collection was put online. Today, thanks in part to the Getty involvement, we loan art to other institutions, produce more exhibits more effortlessly, and were able this year to hire a full-time curator for the first time in the history of our institution.
I often joke that it is hard to make an archives sexy to major donors. However, with the addition of the visual materials, the impact of our archives is now more dramatic. Patrons who might never take the time to read an essay or collection description can find immediate gratification in the visual images from the archives. This brings an entirely new source patronage and support to the archives and this draws them to other materials housed there.
Museums and Events
In 2008, ONE opened the ONE Archives Gallery & Museum in West Hollywood. The idea was to increase outreach to a new, more affluent audience on the west side of Los Angeles. I am still unsure if that has been a success. Although we have mounted fifteen exhibitions to date, many of which, including the Pacific Standard Time offering, have been well reviewed and well received, we are still poorly funded, snubbed by other community groups, and neglected by the city that houses us.
Of greater success has been a film festival that one of our board members has developed from our holdings and from the holdings of a number of other institutions, filmmakers, and gay-owned studios. The ONE Queer Film Festival began in 2009 at a small rental theater in the growing gay district of downtown Los Angeles. Although successful in the first two years, this year’s decline, in a different month and venue, may have resulted from those factors as well as competition with the Outfest Film Festival in the summer. Going forward, we will decide whether board member effort and production expenses are balanced by adequate profit and an opportunity to reach a younger demographic.
For five years, we have hosted a Culture Series on the third Sunday of every month where community speakers, writers, actors and performers are invited to showcase queer culture, and this is a revival of the original ONE Lecture Series begun in the 1950s. Each year, we join the University of Southern California in their Visions and Voices program which provides offerings for students. In addition, we recently developed a pop-up event context called the ONEoff in which we can stage more spontaneous programming. As popular as these programs have been, each costs money and requires that a board member take responsibility to raise the funding before the program can be offered.
Archiving queer collections has been going on since the late 19th century in Europe beginning with Magnus Hirschfeld and perhaps long before by private collectors. In the United States, it is a relatively new activity and follows on the heels of epic efforts on behalf of the social equality of queer peoples in the mid- 20th century. As LGBTQ people in the US and around the world continue to struggle for equality, today the demands on the preservation of our history have never been more pressing. As I write this, a respected archive in the U.S. has stopped collecting because of a renewed focus on programming, which has, in my opinion, distracted it from its mission. Another major archive has lost its housing and has moved into what is hopefully temporary storage.
The practical demands of the care and feeding of a large archive are daunting to say the least, especially when the scope of the collections runs the gamut from matchbooks to costumes and from papers to electronic resources. In and of itself, this is a great and heavy burden, but if we as a community are to preserve our past then we must by necessity focus on the practical needs of our archives as separate from the activities of activism. As I have said, the preservation of LGBTQ history is necessary for full and complete social equality. Archives should be allowed to do their jobs without the demand to take part in the activist fray. We need to communicate the reality that concentrating on funding for costly programming and events often comes at the expense of the materials in our collections and distracts from our primary mission: to preserve a history of the development and continued expansion of our culture. In many places in the world, LGBTQ people enjoy a greater position of social equality than ever before, while in others some of the most vile persecution is the norm and the law. History is written by those who save the records; our archival institutions must collect, protect and make available those records, because otherwise an important part of the human experience will disappear.
Greene, Mark A.; Dennis Meissner (2005). "More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing". American Archivist 68: 208–263.
Orwell, George (1949). Nineteen Eighty-Four. A novel. London: Secker & Warburg.