Over the past couple of years, as part of my dissertation, I have been writing about the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA), located in New York. The LHA lives in a beautiful brownstone building in Parkslope, Brooklyn. Its first home was in the Upper Westside of Manhattan, in the apartment of Joan Nestle, who was one of the founders of the archives. The LHA is a community-based archival space: according to its founding principles, the archives is committed to collecting living histories; as such, the LHA houses historical materials from the past and the present. All lesbians are encouraged to donate materials about their lives. As per this model of archives, decisions about what counts as archival depends on community members. The community decides what is important to its history rather than institutions that may be removed from the community entirely. This is a model of radical archiving that depends on active community participation and support. More information about the LHA, its history and its principles can be found on its website: http://www.lesbianherstoryarchives.org/history.html.
For this blog post, I would like to focus on the LHA’s digital collections, specifically its online collection of photographs that can be found here: http://cdm16124.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p274401coll1. While I am not going to discuss specific images (due to issues pertaining to copyright), I would like to start a broad discussion about archival digitization, community, context, etc. As a scholar in rhetoric and writing, I am particularly interested in understanding the context/rhetorical situation surrounding archival documents (whether physical or digital); contextual information provides important clues about how a particular document was used to make meaning within a given culture. Detailed contextual clues also reinforce a document’s materiality; we come to see the document not just as a collection of ideas, but as a material object that had rhetorical value and was once connected to a whole host of actors (both animate and inanimate). Joanna Sassoon (2004) has argued than “an archival approach to documenting photograph collections requires transformation in the understanding of the nature of a photograph. Rather than seeing the photograph as an image and as a passive object, it can be seen as a material document that has played an active role in history” (199). She also points out that while it may be an expensive process to document the context of use and production, such an approach helps maintain the material histories of a photograph.
The LHA’s collection contains a wide range of photographs, including images whose creators/owners are unknown or anonymous. While the LHA has tried to provide as many details about these photographs as possible, many images are not accompanied by contextual information (like the name of the photographer, the date, etc). A lot of these photographs were probably taken at a time when it was dangerous to identify as a lesbian. Given the long history of shame and repression that LGBTQ communities have had to endure, it is not surprising that many of the material histories of these photographs remain unavailable to us. And yet, in some ways, these digitized photographs continue to assert the active presence of lesbian communities especially when they were deemed absent from mainstream historical accounts. The digitization of these archival images constitutes a step towards creating context – not just for the photographs – but for marginalized lesbian communities who may have been made to believe that they did not have histories of their own. The photographs in the LHA’s digital collection work as material proof of the existence and visibility of lesbians in the United States and beyond.
The LHA also tries to learn more about images in its collections by posting particular photographs on their Facebook page. They call on the larger community for information regarding dates or names of people pictured in the photographs. As such, the LHA attempts to use the digital tools at its disposal to build context for archival materials. I am interested in learning more about how community-based archives such as the LHA mobilize digital tools and media to build context and community. And I am also interested in theorizing what we in the academy can learn from such archives about building community, context and history, especially in the face of cultural erasure and amnesia.
Sassoon, Joanna. “Photographic Materiality in the Age of Digital Reproduction.” Eds. Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart. Photographs, Objects, Histories: On the Materiality of Images. New York: Routledge, 2004. 186 – 202. Print.