Joan Nestle's apartment, early 1980's
(click to enlarge)
A Brief History
In 1972, a group of women and men including Joan Nestle, mostly gay, who worked or had been educated in the City University of New York and had participated in the liberation movements of the l960s, founded the Gay Academic Union (GAU). Dedicated to representing the concerns of lesbian and gay students, teachers, and workers, GAU also launched projects to ensure gay inclusion in course content. At the first conference of the organization, a bomb threat emptied the auditorium, but the conference continued.
As was common in the early 1970s, after a year of working together, several of the women decided they needed a separate meeting space to discuss sexism in the organization, among other things. Two consciousness- raising groups were formed and one of them, which included Joan Nestle and Deborah Edel, became the founding site of the Lesbian Herstory Archives. At one meeting in 1974, Julia Stanley and Joan Nestle, who had come out before the Gay Liberation Movement, talked about the precariousness of lesbian culture and how so much of our past culture was seen only through patriarchal eyes. Deborah Edel, Sahli Cavallo and Pamela Oline, with histories ranging from lesbian-feminism to political lesbianism, joined in and, thus, a new concept was born - a grassroots Lesbian archives.
Later in 1974, a larger group of women started meeting on
a regular basis to work out the deeper vision of this undertaking.
One of the first tasks the group undertook was to send off
a news release to all of the then existing lesbian, feminist
and gay publications announcing the groundbreaking undertaking.
This was a testing of the waters, to see if the community
shared in our vision. The answer was "yes", and
in the next year, 1975, LHA published its first free newsletter.
In the same year, the Archives found its home for the next 15 years
in Joan Nestle's Upper West Side Manhattan apartment on 92nd
St. Deborah Edel and Joan shared these years with the Archives
in this home. And so did thousands of volunteers and visitors.
Deb and Joan agreed that the first ten years of the Archives
would be to build the trust of the communities it was serving.
They were determined to keep all of the services of the Archives
free, to not seek government funding, and to build grassroots
support for the project. To accomplish this, Deb and Joan
had carried around early journal issues, photographs, letters,
and so on, in shopping bags, speaking to whomever invited
them. The venues ranged from living rooms where all present
were sworn to secrecy, to women's festivals, gay church and
synagogue gatherings, classrooms and bars.
By the late 1970s, to save wear and tear on the more fragile
artifacts, they created the Archives' slide show. The slide
show meant they could demonstrate the history of the Archives
and raise issues about the challenges facing a Lesbian Archives
and Lesbian history work in general, while making appeals
for more materials. The main point of the slide show was 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.
"To change deprivation into cultural plentitude"
as Joan said in hundreds of tours she gave in the apartment
of the overflowing collection. A version of the slideshow
still exists today, custom fitted to whomever is showing it.
Mabel Hampton, Joan Nestle,
Judith Schwarz and Deborah Edel
(click to enlarge)
In 1978, Judith Schwarz, a pioneering grassroots Lesbian historian, joined the collective, bringing with her all her skills in information organizing. Georgia Brooks, a tireless activist in the New Jersey and New York communities, also joined. Georgia launched the first Black Lesbian Studies group at the Archives, which held its meetings around the famous French peasant dining room table that we bought for $30 on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn in 1973. It is now back in Brooklyn in our permanent home.
One other person closely connected with the Archives until her death was Mabel Hampton, (1902-1986), a woman who had lived her long life in the African-American Lesbian community. Mabel donated her extensive collection of 1950s lesbian paperbacks and often came to volunteer nights. From the earliest days of the Archives, one night a week was devoted to volunteers working with the collection -groups of very different women spread out over the whole apartment filing, sorting, cataloguing, and opening mail. Many women came to volunteer nights just to hear Mabel tell her tales of drag balls in Harlem and her version of the wild parties of the Harlem Renaissance.
In the mid-1980s when we realized we needed to find a larger home for the Archives and to spread the responsibility for the now huge collection, we created a Coordinating Committee that spearheaded a concerted fundraising drive so we could purchase a building for the collection. We purchased our new home, in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in 1990 and officially opened it in June 1993. The bank was dubious about taking a risk on our non-hierarchical collective with no guaranteed source of income, but we raised the money to pay back the bank in record time. That trust we had talked about building in 1974 was there when we - all of us -needed it. Thank you.
On this web site you will see the ever-growing face of the archives, the work of tireless coordinators and volunteers who make all possible, and of the continuing donations, both financial and material, of our communities. The Archives coordinators hold this building and its contents in trust for our communities and we take our responsibility seriously.
We invite you to use us, to visit us in whatever way you can. We hope in the future to make the contents of our collections accessible on the Internet. But someday, if you can, make your way to the old table in Brooklyn around which so many of us have dreamed and planned and acted, refusing the ignorances of our times.
Our Mission and Principles
From the beginning the Archives' founders developed a statement of purpose and a set of principles to guide the development of the collection. We adhere to these purposes and principles today.
Statement of Purpose: The Lesbian Herstory Archives 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. The process of gathering this material will uncover and collect our herstory denied to us previously by patriarchal historians in the interests of the culture which they serve. We will be able to analyze and reevaluate the Lesbian experience; we also hope the existence of the Archives will encourage Lesbians to record their experiences in order to formulate our living herstory.
We will collect and preserve any materials that are relevant to the lives and experiences of Lesbians: books, magazine, journals, news clippings (from establishment, Feminist or lesbian media), bibliographies, photos, historical information, tapes, films, diaries, oral histories, poetry and prose, biographies, autobiographies, notices of events, posters, graphics and other memorabilia.
Principles: Many of the Archives' principles are a radical departure from conventional archival practices. They are inclusive and non-institutional and reveal the Archives' commitment to living history, to housing the past along with the present. Among the basic principles guiding the Archives are:
- All Lesbian women must have access to the Archives;
no academic, political, or sexual credentials will be required
for use of the collection; race and class must be no barrier
for use or inclusion.
- The Archives shall be housed within the community, not on an academic campus that is by definition closed to many women.
- The Archives shall be involved in the political struggles of all Lesbians.
- Archival skills shall be taught, one generation of Lesbians to another, breaking the elitism of traditional archives.
- The community should share in the work of the Archives.
- Funding shall be sought from within the communities the Archives serves, rather than from outside sources.
- The community should share in the work of the Archives.
- The Archives will always have a caretaker living in it so that it will always be someone's home rather than an institution.
- The Archives will never be sold nor will its contents be divided.
|Copyright © 2013 by LHEF, Inc.