Lesbian Herstory Archives runs on strength of the community
By Stacey Knott
The Lesbian Herstory Archives has been at its current three-story spot since 1993 and is jam-packed with books, memorabilia, files, photos and videos that document the events, lives, struggles and successes of lesbians since the 1950s.
All the material in the Archives is donated from people in the community; much of it is from its many volunteers that keep it running.
Joan Nestle and Deborah Edel started the Archives in 1974 in an apartment in the Upper West Side, born out of their dismay at lesbian culture being virtually ignored by libraries, mainstream publishers and archives.
The two started to collect material to prove the existence of lesbians, and fast-forward 35 years, this idea appears to have met its fruition. The Park Slope building is covered floor to ceiling, and even unused sinks are used to display lesbian-themed badges and stickers. The material captures the lives of those in the lesbian community, both famous and ordinary.
The front room on the first floor has a wall lined with file cabinets covering everything from lesbians and abortions to lesbians and music festivals. Also in this room are shelves of books divided into categories like science-fiction and autobiography.
Mimi Lester, a volunteer at the Archives, said they shelve the books by the first name of the author, a throwback to “seventies feminists rejecting patriarchal last names.”
Directly behind the front room is the dining room, complete with a big wooden desk where visitors pore over the material. This room houses a shelf of pulp fiction books which the Archives call “survival fiction,” as some of it is the oldest material in the collection. These were written at a time when lesbianism was a huge taboo, so its lesbian subjects are written in a more discreet way.
Mimi has been volunteering at the Archives for the last few years while studying history and women’s studies at Brooklyn College.
She got involved with the Archives because she believed in the importance of preserving the history of the lesbian community.
“Our history is important, and so often it isn’t recorded or it’s actively destroyed,” said Mimi. “Maintaining a record, even if it’s just of an average person (who) didn’t do anything huge in their life, the fact that there is proof they existed and lived their life as they wanted to is important,” she said.
Mimi believed the Archives are a good place for people who want to explore sexuality; she called it a “safe haven for people to explore themselves.”
She said it is a welcome site in its Park Slope neighborhood and gets only positive responses.
On a recent Monday at the Archives, up on the second floor, surrounded by files of newspaper articles, conference files and a tee-shirt collection, was Kristen Singer, a New York University student working on her master’s thesis. She had been at the Archives full time for the last few months, researching the Daughters of Belasis, the first lesbian organization in the USA. She said the Archives had been “unimaginably important” to her research.
“Everything I need for this topic is here,” she said. Of particular note to the student was a huge video project the Archive had with interviews of members of the Daughters of Belasis. She said access to this material is “priceless. It’s really amazing.”
The Lesbian Herstory Archive is located at 484 14 Street, between Eighth Avenue and Prospect Park West, and is open to the public most days of the week. Upcoming events include a talk with Ann Bannon, an author of lesbian pulp fiction, on April 18, and a tour and guide to the Black Lesbian Herstory of the Collection focusing on the 1970s on April 24.
For more information about upcoming events and open hours, visit www.lesbianherstoryarchives.com or call 718-768-DYKE.