“The generations of ‘wearing a mask’ and having to pass as heterosexual, of invisibility and enforced silencing of our own voices, and of oppressive distortions about our lives in the mainstream media have all made collecting and preserving our historical records an act of liberation.” – “In the Archives,” John D’Emilio
This week, John D’Emilio published a blog post on OutHistory about archives and I was (am) thrilled. D’Emilio reflects on the role of archives in queer historiography – how early research in this nascent field was very rarely conducted in physical institutions that housed and cared for materials. This grass-roots historiography necessitated community engagement – speaking with individual activists and wading through piles of documents at their organizations of origin. Indeed, D’Emilio reflects on his visit to the New York Mattachine Society, being told that they would be closing at the end of the month and having any/all of the office files offered to him! He kept two four-drawer file cabinets in an apartment closet for several years. The sheer absurdity (and “cringewothiness”) of the situation acts as a solemn reminder of “how precarious the survival of our historical records has been.”
Community-based archives, as D’Emilio calls them, are important because they are accessible to the communities they serve – “Creating and sustaining them are themselves acts of community building.” Communal/subcultural archives (as I called them in my last post) can also act as a counterpoint to our evolving ideas of permanence. In “On the Idea of Permanence,” James O’Toole envisions the freedom to (re)define the scope, purpose, and management of our collections (24). Perhaps this possibility is rooted in both new preservation technologies and community-based archival self-sufficiency.