Archives and LGBTQ Representation (reflections from a graduate trainee)

This post from our former graduate trainee Kate Guariento (2018/19) provides some reflections on her experience of LGBTQ representation in archives. As a service we have been exploring ways to improve the scope of our collections which currently include official collections like the Records of Glasgow University Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Students’ Association (lacking in material for the early years) and information held in University publications like the Glasgow Guardian which can be searched online as well as papers of prominent LGBTQ individuals like Edwin Morgan. We are working on a source guide to LGBTQ related records (there are examples of guides from National Library of Scotland and The National Archives) and ways to engage with communities that can add to our collections.

In the few months since I finished my graduate traineeship at the University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections, I’ve been reflecting more and more on the issue of LGBTQIA+ representation in archives. On my first day as a trainee I typed a few keywords into our Archives Hub catalogue: ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘queer’, ‘trans’, ‘LGBT’. Some interesting hits popped up, but it wasn’t a surprise to see that there weren’t many results. [Edit: The same applies to the new collections catalogue launched since Kate’s time with us.]

It’s often said that archives are repositories for memory, but what’s talked about less is what archives have forgotten, or, more accurately, ignored. It can be easy to assume – perhaps because of the connotations of authority that are bound up with the idea of archives – that the records held by institutions provide an impartial window into history. But it’s important to remember when we type our keywords into the catalogue, that the results aren’t the whole story. Archives have preserved what was deemed important, and, historically, those in charge of doing the deeming have represented a very narrow section of the population. It’s for this reason, among others, that LGBTQIA+ history is so frustratingly under-represented in the repositories of major institutions. Under-representation is of course not only suffered by the LGBTQIA+ community: it’s no accident, to take just one example from my experience as a trainee, that box upon box of materials can exist on the minutiae of the activities of business managers, but we are lucky if we manage to find even just the name of a welder.

The issue of the absence of LGBTQIA+ records in archives is compounded when it comes to our business or university archive collections. Before the decriminalisation of homosexuality, which in Scotland took place in 1981, it’s easy to understand why people wouldn’t have wanted their employers or the institutions they were members of to know about parts of their lives that were seen as criminal, let alone have these aspects preserved for posterity. Even post-decriminalisation, the mistrust on the part of the queer community towards institutions such as archives and museums was not simply undone: it’s quite a leap to go from hiding your criminalised sexuality from your employer to believing that they are interested in your life and happily donating your collection of lesbian literature to them.

The issue of communities feeling like institutional archives are not for or about them is deeply rooted, and, in many cases, a look at an institution’s collections and the language they use to speak about them will prove this mistrust justified. If institutions want to build this trust, they should be prepared to put in the hard work this requires, beyond merely paying lip service to ‘the importance of diversity’. This means, for example, actively hiring people from marginalised communities (this is particularly relevant to Black Asian Minority Ethnic groups, people with disabilities, and people from working class backgrounds, who are significantly underrepresented in the UK archive workforce), as well as being open to changing the profession itself by questioning the values behind collections policies and reviewing cataloguing and indexing practices.

In the face of all of these challenges, it may be a surprise to hear that I finished my wonderful year as a trainee feeling optimistic, but I did. It’s been really heartening to see how archives can change and evolve, if the effort is made. I’m proud to know that, thanks to the help and enthusiasm of my former colleagues at Archives & Special Collections, and the efforts of the lovely people at the University of Glasgow LGBT+ staff network, the University collections are home to more material on the history of the LGBTQIA+ community at the University. As Eleanor Capaldi of the LGBT+ Staff Network comments:

Helping to increase the visibility of LGBT members of the University community is an important step that the LGBT+ Staff Network are keen to support. Historical erasure is something many identities find themselves facing, so to know Archives here are actively working towards redressing this balance is welcomed.

The brilliant thing about archives is that they allow for both continuity and change. There’s room for other voices, and, contrary to the stereotype of archives as stuffy, static old places, new stories are being added all the time. There are so many different ways of making archives more accessible and diverse – the Archivists Against History Repeating Itself collective’s website has some excellent resources on this – and collecting more diversely is only one of many steps. But it’s an important one, and to do it the archives need your help.

Screenshot of twitter call for archives

Do you have anything sitting in your attic, on your computer, in a drawer, that tells part of the University of Glasgow’s LGBTQIA+ story? If you do, please consider donating it, or a copy of it, to the University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections (ASC). The LGBT+ Staff Network “can’t wait to see what kinds of items might be brought forward by people to help expand our understanding of LGBT+ experiences and activities at UofG over the years”, and neither can ASC. Even the seemingly most unassuming item can be a treasure trove of stories. The University of Glasgow has and has always had a vibrant LGBTQIA+ community – it’s important that its archives represent that. [Further information about adding to our collection is here].

Categories: Archives and Special Collections

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