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Lesbian Herstory Archives: Collecting our stories

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Lesbian Herstory Archives

Lesbian Herstory Archives: Collecting our stories

If you’re ever in New York City, drop by and see the Lesbian Herstory Archives housed in a small brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn to know that our stories as lesbians will never be forgotten.

Located at 484 14th Street, the Lesbian Herstory Archives is the home to the world’s largest collection of materials by and about lesbians and their communities.

With a motto of “in memory of the voices we have lost,” the Archives is the home of photographs, files, books, videos, t-shirts, buttons and music collected as part of the social history of the lesbian community.

Aside from being an archive, it also serves as a museum and a community center.

Lesbian Herstory Archives: A lesbian history

The Archives was founded by members of the Gay Academic Union in 1974, but its initial start happened in 1972 with a group of mostly gay women and men who worked or had been educated in the City University of New York.

All of them had participated in the liberation movements of the 1960s, but in the early 1970s, several women– led by Joan Nestle and Deborah Edel– decided they needed a separate space.

With the help of Sahli Cavallaro and Pamela Oline, they established a grassroots lesbian archives was a way to give lesbian culture its own place in history not viewed through patriarchal eyes.

In 1975, they published their first free newsletter and set the archive at Nestle’s Upper West Side Manhattan apartment on 92nd Street (where Nestle and Edel also lived).

As Nestle wrote about the Archives, “The roots of the Archives lie in the silent voices, the love letters destroyed, the pronouns changed, the diaries carefully edited, the pictures never taken, the euphemized distortions that patriarchy would let pass.”

Grassroots nature of the Archives

During the first ten years, as they gathered support and materials for the archives, the group determined that they would keep the services of the Archives free, and not to seek government funding for the project.

Many women volunteered for the project, like pioneering grassroots lesbian historian Judith Schwartz, who helped in the filing and sorting of material.

There was also Georgia Brooks, who launched the first Black Lesbian Studies group at the Archives, and Mabel Hampton, who donated her extensive collection of 1950s lesbian paperbacks.

Edel once joked that with the Archives, “anything that was written by a lesbian, or, we joke, anything that was touched by a lezzie, we want to collect.”

In 1982, they raised money and bought the Archives’ four-storey current home at Park Slope in Brooklyn. They moved the huge collection there and opened officially in 1983.

The principles of the Lesbian Herstory Archives

Presently, the work of the Archives is to gather and preserve records of lesbian lives and activities so that future generations of lesbians will have access to materials relevant to their lives.

The project has the following principles: all lesbian women will have access to the Archives; it should be housed within the community; funding should be sourced from the community, and that it should never be sold or divided.

More importantly, the Archives isn’t about cataloging the lives of “famous” lesbians but about having the voices from everyone in the lesbian community in just one place where everyone can see it and remember.

As Archives volunteer Gabrielle Korn told Autostraddle: “It’s not just about the things. It’s about having this home.”

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