Outing the Archive

Creating an LGBT presence in the Austin History Center

Austin Chronicle: What is the current state of LGBTQI collections at the Austin History Center?

Susan Rittereiser, curator of Archives and Manuscripts: There's very little.

Mike Miller, director: The one significant collection is from the Austin Gay/Lesbian Political Caucus. It came with many newsletters and publications from other gay activist groups in Austin at the time.

Katie Causier, reference archivist: The newsletters we have are from 1979 to '94. There's over 100 issues.

Miller: Another collection is from the Greater Austin YWCA. While not specifically a gay activist group, they had often taken on that cause in some of their programs. We have some material related to those efforts from the early- to mid-'90s.

AC: What are the specific challenges to LGBTQI collections, or are they the same across fields?

Tim Hamblin, video archivist: Having documents for people who may not want their sexual life or preferences available, especially older folks: I think that's something we need to be very sensitive about. It would help to have the assistance of the community in obtaining some of these records. Otherwise, many of the challenges are the same.

AC: Are there challenges with sexually explicit material?

Daniel Alonzo, photo archivist: We've never had any problems. Mainly because children rarely come in here.

Causier: We have a corollary in that there are some very violent, graphic photos in the [Charles] Whitman papers. And we haven't had any problems with people gawking or being inappropriate.

AC: Have you had encounters with clients who have expressed interest in censoring materials?

Miller: You know, I've been an archivist for more than 12 years, and that has never come up for me; actually it comes up in libraries, which usually have open stacks and unfettered access to materials. Archives don't have open stacks. In order to get to the materials, you generally have to work through an archivist or someone in reference.

Rittereiser: Our policy is we're not censoring that material, and even if somebody comes down and gives us a lot of flack, it's not our job to censor. It's public information. And I think being in Austin, too, this community strives to be inclusive and liberal.

AC: Where do you see or want LGBTQI collections at Austin History Center to be in five or 10 years?

Rittereiser: Multiple collections with its own bibliography. Our goal is to build the subject matter.

Hamblin: Expand our Austin files that would have organizations and major people in the community, biographical files. We are dependent upon the community to give us this information.

Rittereiser: And ultimately, that information would be online for greater access.

AC: Contentwise: What's your wish list?

Hamblin: Where this [project] started off [in The Austin Chronicle 2009 Pride Guide]: The gay/lesbian bar scene – that I enjoyed in the '80s! It's so underdocumented. Then organizations and other political groups. We'd create a bibliography of the community, just like we have African-American, Asian-American, or Mexican-American. People could then correlate different collections.

Alonzo: We'd like to see how the community responded to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

Causier: I wish we had more materials from pre-Eighties, pre-late Seventies.

Rittereiser: Older people: How were the 1940s and '50s [for LGBT] in Austin? What were their lives like? I'd like to hear their stories.

Hamblin: Family papers, diaries, journals, and oral history are ways we can get to that history.

AC: Sadly, part of the reason for the urgency of the call-out is that families are often the biggest censors. Some don't want information about gay family members getting out. But the more collections an archive has, the safer it feels for people to come out and contribute. How would you encourage people who have collections, who are reading this and are now excited and want to donate?

Hamblin: First thing is to organize things. This is really helpful to us because it shows how they see their own collections. Having photos labeled in pencil on the back.

Miller: "Who, what, when, where, why."

Rittereiser: Weed out whole daily newspapers; we have those. Send only the articles, and if possible photocopy them before you give them to us, because newspaper is really acidic and deteriorates very quickly.

Miller: Also, we are at that point that if it's larger than a breadbox, we have to do some serious negotiating for space to take something in. We have 50,000 square feet of materials in a 33,000-square-foot building, but we also have an obligation to make sure that history is preserved as best we can. Those are the two sides we struggle with daily right now.

Alonzo: A lot of people don't keep their stuff in a way that maximizes saving space, whereas we do, so a collection may be considerably smaller when we access it.

Miller: We urge donors to call ahead and set up an initial consultation, a conversation about the materials.

Hamblin: As we do get big collections, it would be great to have volunteers dedicated and really willing to go through and help us refine materials. The goal is to get these items accessible as quickly as possible.

Read Part 2 of this exploration with the Austin History Center.

Please e-mail us if you wish to volunteer with or support this Austin LGBT History Archive project in any way: gayarchiveproject@austinchronicle.com.

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