Negative Spaces: Confronting Gaps in Archives and Collections

After last week’s class, I found myself reflecting on the article we read from the National Council on Public History. The article discussed a push in the National Parks Service to interpret sites related to LGBT history and community. The major question that emerged from the article was, “How can we promote understanding of LGBT peoples’ experiences as central to American history and also serve the great variety of LGBT groups and their internal dynamics.”[1] It is a question that needs to be answered. However, the process of answering it may be more difficult than expected.

I know from experience that finding information (particularly primary sources) on LGBT history is not easy. During my undergraduate years, I worked on a pr
oject that involved mapping and researching sites of conscience related to LGBT civil rights on campus and in the surrounding town. In 1972, the city in which my university was located, East Lansing, Michigan, became the first in the country to pass a law that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. The Gay Liberation Movement student group at the university was crucial to the passing of this law. However, despite the monumentality of this legislation, I was able to find very little about it in our university’s archives. To their credit, there was a collection of papers from the GLM and other records related to LGBT activism, but compared to the rest of the collection, the pickings were slim.

IMAG1009_1At the time, I reacted to this reality with frustration. How could we tell stories of the LGBT community with no resources? Now, however, I have begun thinking about how to solve this lack of historical representation. One of the main solutions I can think of is oral history. Indeed, one of the most useful resources in my research was an interview with a former member of the GLM. Another is actively seeking out stories, picture
s, and documents, such as the Digital Transgender Archive is doing. Both of these involve people (and historians) reaching out to communities and telling them their histories and experiences are important and valuable.

I think in many ways, it is up to historians and museum professionals to correct these gaps in our archives and collections. We need to actively seek and recognize the negative spaces and work to fill them. Additionally, in the future, we should recognize historic events such as civil rights milestones as they happen and archive and collect related objects and documents as they appear. Hopefully an attention to recording present stories will help prevent this frustration in the future. After all, as an astute poster created by the Interference Archive states, “We are who we archive.”

 

 

[1] http://ncph.org/history-at-work/nps-lgbt-initiative-an-opportunity/

Image Credits:

“IMG_8827” by flickr user Zefrog:http://bit.ly/1qVU7oW

“We are who we archive” personal picture by Christine Scales

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