Posted on June 3, 2019 at 6:00 am
I love library special collections. They’re like microhistories you get to assemble yourself.
While popular collections—like the kind you usually find in a public library—are assembled based on the interests of a broad population with a wide variety of needs, special collections are assembled based on a special interest of a person or group of people.
Popular collections are kept up to date with the most recent topics of interest, latest bestsellers, and most accurate information. If they weren’t, then they wouldn’t serve the broad interests of readers.
Imagine going to your public library in search of the latest Marvel comic or a guide to reroofing your garage and learning that there wasn’t space for those materials because the library was using the shelf space to preserve a farmer’s almanac from 1872. That almanac sounds pretty cool, but it’s not useful to today’s public library user.
That’s where special collections come in. Sometimes special collection materials have a lot of overlap with a given popular collection. A library dedicated to fantasy and science fiction (like at USF Library) may include your favorite Gaiman, McCaffrey, and LeGuin novels. And it will also include authors that may be overlooked. For example, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Collection at USF Library has a huge selection of Latin American science fiction authors.
Popular libraries can even contain special collections. At the Library District, we have the Inland Northwest Collection, which features poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and other materials written, edited, or produced by residents of or about Spokane County.
Special collections can contain rare materials, fragile materials, and materials which may not be browsed for years—decades, even. They can provide tools for historical analysis, anthropological study, scientific research, and personal edification.
And this is where I get invested. Special collections are a bulwark against the erasure of our own history. Special collections take records of erroneous science and make sure we don’t forget the consequences. They preserve diaries so we know what everyday life was like for people in 16th century England, 19th century Utah, and WWII-era France for example. They harbor materials which might be otherwise forgotten or hidden—even destroyed, censored, or suppressed.
June is LGBTQ Pride month, so I’m sharing LGBTQ special collections found in North America.
Special collections and archives offer insights into the history of laws, rulers, and the people affected by them. In 1918, Germany enacted a law criminalizing men who participated in homosexual acts. The German state of Prussia, which housed the Institute of Sex Research (Institut für Sexualwissenschaft) in Berlin, ignored this law. Prussia became a safe haven for gay Germans. The institute’s literary collection flourished, with thousands of books and documents on queer history and rights.
Then in 1933, under the rule of Hitler, the Nazis destroyed the institute. Over 20,000 texts were dragged into the streets and burned. Over 50,000 gay men were imprisoned in concentration camps.
In 1969, the German law criminalizing homosexuality was reversed. That same year, the Stonewall Riots in New York City—the inspiration for the annual pride parade—occurred.
Centers like the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft exist to offer resources to both LGBTQ individuals and the world at large. They can offer insight on LGBTQ health issues, human rights access, and historical importance, treatment, and presence. They can also create visibility, representation, and a feeling of belonging.
This year, Spokane’s Pride Parade theme is “To Thrive, Not Just Survive.” LGBTQ special collections can be an educational citadel of survival during periods of erasure, exclusion, and fear. They are also examples of the pursuit of knowledge and the understanding of the self.
There are several LGBTQ archives within the United States. Here are a few within driving distance.
This library in Seattle’s Capitol Hill is located within the nonprofit Gay City. Although the space is small, the library offers a host of resources, including books, CDs, DVDs, and computer access. The library most closely resembles a public library in accessibility—in fact, anyone, from anywhere, can check out materials with just a valid ID.
The LGBT Library’s collection is relatively eclectic, and its more than 8,000 books are almost entirely from donations, and even the librarians are volunteers. This is a great library to visit if you are looking to browse LGBTQ materials just like you might in a popular collection.
This project collects more than just documents—it’s known for its map of Seattle’s gay community’s history, and for its collection of oral histories. Excerpts from these histories have been collected into a publication put out by the museum: Mosaic 1: Life Stories from Isolation to Community. The collection focuses on Seattle’s early settlement history on through present-day activism, sharing the voices of the people’s experiences in stories. Their website offers transcribing, oral history, community history, and interviewing resources, in addition to some samples of their collection.
GLAPN is a collection and preservation project for Pacific Northwest sexual minorities. You can find their archives at the Oregon Historical Society, in Portland, Oregon. Among these resources are several collections of ephemera regarding specific gay and lesbian activists in the Pacific Northwest dating back to 1918; records of gay and lesbian organizations in Oregon and the surrounding area; AIDS and HIV materials spanning the epidemic from 1987–1998; legal transcripts; and even an entire collection focused on Portland lesbian and gay choirs. In addition to providing speakers, exhibits, and primary resource documents, GLAPN offer their expertise in archiving to others interested in it. GLAPN’s collections are always expanding.
Another volunteer-run community library, Out on the Shelves focuses on empowering LGBTQ2IA+ people and is committed to anti-oppressive social justice work. The library has children’s and young adult sections and prioritizes books written about LGBTQ2IA+ authors that reflect their own experiences and voices. Based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Out on the Shelves emphasizes collecting materials produced by Canadian authors and focuses on accessibility, including ramps, gender neutral stalls, braille, and more. The books in this collection are collected specifically for personal use and not for research.
You can access this online archive right from home. This project offers a gateway into Seattle’s history of LGBTQ activism as collected from a number of Pacific Northwest resources, including the Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project listed above. Here you can find an introduction to the history of LGBTQ people in Seattle during the post-European settlement; a timeline of civil rights progress; and a compendium of digitized primary sources about the lives and experiences of LGBTQ Seattleites since colonization in 1851.
If you are interested in our library’s collection of LGBTQ materials, you can get started by checking out my recommendations from last year for adult, teen, and children’s fiction. Or you can browse our nonfiction collection.
If you are in need of local LGBTQ resources for yourself or someone you know, you can start by looking at OutSpokane’s resources.
Tags: archival materials, archives, history, identity, Inland Northwest Collection, LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTQ2IA+, library, local collection, museum, preservation, pride, Pride Month, pride parade, reading, special collections