Graham Willett, Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives, Melbourne, Australia: How Small Collections Can Make a Big Difference Graham Willett, Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives

"The work of community-based archives and other collections is of national significance, and we should celebrate what we do and be proud of it and not be backward in expecting national/state/local institutions to support our work."

Graham Willett is the president of the Australian Lesbian and Gay archives, an independent, community-based, volunteer-operated and non-profit organisation. In this paper, he discusses the relationship that the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives has with "major federal and state museums, archives and heritage organizations" and asks "what (they) – a small, poor, community-based, volunteer-run organisation – have to offer to these larger, richer bodies, and the local, regional and national histories that they serve?"

What do you think can larger institutes learn from organizations like the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives? To read Graham Willett's full paper, click "read more". Discuss, comment, share and enjoy!

How Small Collections Can Make a Big Difference
Graham Willett, Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives

Since its establishment by a vote of the National Homosexual Conference in 1978, the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives has been collecting, preserving and celebrating the lives and experiences of lesbians and gay men and the broader LGBTIQ community in Australia. 

The Archives is based in Melbourne (Australia’s second biggest city) in the state of Victoria, but has a national membership and operates with the assistance of interstate members and friends. While it has received occasional small grants for particular projects, the Archives is an independent organisation – community-based, volunteer-operated and not-for-profit. It is one of very few such collections in the world.

From its earliest days, the Archives has relied on the good will of gay, lesbian and queer communities across Australia for its materials.  Organisations producing newspapers and magazines have almost always responded positively to requests supply us with complimentary copies as each issue is published.  As result, our serials collection is the most complete such collection of Australian materials anywhere in the world. Manuscript collections come from individuals who donate or bequeath personal collections, defunct organisations and sometimes from still-functioning organisations wishing to relinquish their non-current records.

Currently the collection holds 40,000 periodicals (covering 1,300 titles); 45,000 newspaper clippings, 2000 ephemera files, 1500 posters, 800 badges, 4000 photographs, 4000 books and 130 oral history interviews, as well as personal correspondence and diaries, scrap books, court records, banners, paintings, film scripts, plays, audio and video tapes. The Archives aspires to be a collection which reflects the diversity of GLBTI Australia.  We do not see our role as censoring or judging the contributions of those who identify with any of those communities.  Accordingly, the organisation has earned widespread respect, and enjoys active support from a broad range of GLBTI donors. 

The use of the Archives by researchers has increased over the years – mainly due to the burgeoning interest in gay and lesbian issues as a matter for academic research.  In addition the Archives is consulted as a first point of contact by professionals engaged in projects where it is relevant to give a homosexual perspective from an historical context (e.g. producers of documentaries, script-writers, film-makers etc).
At last year’s GLBT ALMS conference in Los Angeles, I discussed some of the ways in which the Archives’ committee and members have worked to bring the collection to the attention of the wider GLQ community, focussing on our annual history conference, history walks, research prizes, publications exhibitions and so on. Here I would like to draw attention to the relationship that we have with major federal and state museums, archives and heritage organisations. Initially, I was intending to focus on what we, as a small independent organisation, hoped to get from our association with organisations such as the State Library of Victoria, the National Library, state and federal government heritage departments and so on. But upon reflection, it seemed to me that it might be worth considering the relationship the other way round. What do we – a small, poor, community-based, volunteer-run organisation – have to offer to these larger, richer bodies, and the local, regional and national histories that they serve?

I think there are five aspects worth considering: our collection is unique, both in toto and in respect of individual items and sub-collections; ALGA gathers and concentrates expertise; it reaches audiences in a way that most collecting institutions aspire to do; it brings volunteer passion to collecting and celebrating the past; it provides a means to raise the  profile of a small and marginalised part of the national story and to integrate it into that bigger story.

It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the larger institutions need the Archives more than we need them.

Our collection is unique
Anyone hoping to study or understand the history of homosexual Australia has a mass of materials to draw upon. Some of these are held in state and national archives (records and documents of the convict era, for example); some are in rare books and personal collections held in the National and state libraries; there are important films and paintings and other art objects that are part of the story which are mostly in public hands.

But the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives has a collection that – especially for the period after 1969, when the gay movement began in Australia – is indispensible for such work. Without it, our knowledge and understanding would be very much poorer, and some parts of the story would have disappeared altogether. Ours is a collection that is not – and could not be – reproduced by any other institution. In the first place, it is hard to imagine any other conditions under which this collection could have been created. Some 34 years ago, the Archives was established by a vote of the annual National Homosexual Conference – it began operations then with the imprimatur, as it were, of the gay and lesbian movement. A number of people immediately donated important collections and the sense that the Archives is community property and a community institution has been an important element of its success in collecting ever since.

The collection was established as, and continues to be, national in its orientation. (Early attempts to build an international collection were abandoned some time in the 1980s when it became clear that this could not be done in any thorough way with the resources available to us). The state-based state libraries make no attempt to collect nationally, and while the National Library does attempt this, it has been less successful than ALGA. The collection is unique, too, in that it holds a collection of GLQ newspapers and magazines that is unrivalled in its scope and comprehensiveness. We have pretty much every issue of every newspaper and magazine produced in Australia, as well as a very extensive collection of newsletters.

Because the collection has been amassed over such a long time and in real time, as it were, it has accumulated materials not now available, however widely available they may have been in the past. Here I am thinking of the runs of newspapers and magazines, the ephemera, the posters and badges and so on. Except by being captured at the time of circulation, many of these materials would have disappeared, as indeed they have, for the most part, outside the confines of the collection.

We also have unique organisational and personal collections that can only be held in one place – such as the papers of the 11 national homosexual conferences; early activist groups such as Daughters of Bilitis, Gay Liberation and Society 5; and ACTUP Melbourne and Sydney ...

We also provide an antidote to the widely-held belief that we often hear voiced that individual lives (as represented in diaries, letters, photographs) ‘aren’t very important’. The existence of the archive, and its very public efforts to collect all manner of materials, means that materials that might otherwise have been destroyed by the owners or their family and friends as insignificant have been saved for history. In other cases materials have come to us from people who would prefer not to hand them over to state-owned institutions or straight institutions.
These various ways in which the collection is unique are more than just interesting. The collection matters to the national, state and local history and heritage and collecting organisations because those organisations have – and are often genuinely committed to – an obligation not just to their own collections, but to the wider national, state and local heritage. One of the very few ways in which they can extend their coverage beyond using what they already hold, beyond what they already do, is in partnership with ALGA. We can help them meet their national or state obligations in a richer way than they could otherwise do. (An important example of their recognising our expertise and of their willingness, eagerness even, to work with us is discussed in Kate Davison’s paper for this conference.)

It was no surprise to us when an independent significance assessment prepared under the aegis of the federal government department responsible for heritage matters concluded that the collection was of national significance, particularly for its historical, social and research potential. The collection was recognised as being relatively well provenanced, representative and in possession of some rare items and collections; in good condition and with strong interpretive
potential. This is important evidence for the argument I am making here – that the work of community-based archives and other collections is of national significance, and we should celebrate what we do and be proud of it and not be backward in expecting national/state/local institutions to support our work.

ALGA gathers and concentrates expertise
The second way in which the work of the Archives is important is the expertise that it embodies. The volunteers and the managing committee are members of the GLQ communities, aged from mid-60s to 30s and thus representative a range of generations and experiences. All are attached to parts of the communities, albeit in various ways. While all are based in Melbourne, where the Archives lives (with a couple of exceptions of people who do volunteer work online or from home in other parts of the state and nation), many have come to Melbourne form other parts of the country and bring a national focus to our work.

This gives us day-to-day contact with community affairs, allowing us to proactively seek out material and respond to developments. To take one example – in 2000, the company that owned most of the gay newspapers and magazines in Australia went bankrupt and stopped publishing, literally overnight. Within a couple of weeks, replacement papers had been started up across the country. Alert to these developments, we were able to contact the new publishers in each state and get ourselves back on their free list. Many State Libraries, on the other hand, were unaware of these new papers and not in a position to follow up on them.

There is also, of course, as a result of the active engagement with the collection itself, and with the broad field of Australian GLQ studies, a deep and wide knowledge of the past. When someone is researching, say, homosexual experiences in World War 2, between us we are able to generate a very thorough listing of sources – both from our own collection, but also books, journal articles, other collections and so on. Equally, we are able to advise a researcher based at the Australian war memorial that there was virtually nothing known about the homosexual experience of the First World War. That is, we are across the known unknowns, as much as the unknown knowns.

The Archives also runs an email discussion list called ozhomohist which engages in what we might now call crowdsourcing, seeking input from its members to answer research and other questions. Our Facebook page serves a similar purpose.

This expertise is well beyond anything that state institutions, with their many responsibilities, could hope to match.

The Archives brings volunteer passion to collecting and celebrating the past
The volunteer model has long been used in community based archiving and obviously has its limitations. Volunteering in an archive is hardly cool (we often describe our organisation as ‘daggy but loved’) and numbers tend to be small. Most of us have other jobs and need to fit our archiving in around those. Competing demands on time means that often volunteers do not stay all that long. Having said that, we have sustained a volunteer base, with some turnover (but not as much as we might have feared), of about 20 people, and many of those have been involved for many years.

Most volunteers have their own particular projects—indexing magazines, listing box content, maintaining the website, collecting and logging oral histories. In discussions with the State Library in 2007 about the possibility of our housing the collection with that institution – and it is indicative of the standing that we have that this approach came from the State Library to us, rather than the other way around – it was clear that the Library, for all its resources, could not offer the same level of collection management.

As a community based organisation we are reliant upon other community organisations to help us with costs (most notably, the Victorian AIDS Council provides us with free accommodation). Despite this, we have done a remarkable job of collecting and preserving materials of various kinds. In the 2011 Preservation Report, very little was identified as needing to be done to preserve the collection from decay.

The strengths of volunteer-based operations need to be recognised. Individuals who have a particular interest – posters, or AIDS, or same-sex marriage, or any one of a myriad of issues and materials – will often pro-actively seek out materials, using their expertise (as identified above) but donating their time and effort, above and beyond what might be expected from paid staff, even in large organisations. We can – and do – chase opportunities to enhance the collection, but also respond to offers, however small. A few years ago we were offered two small photographs of a brother and sister from the 1940s cross-dressing. In responding to this offer we were given, as well, a wonderful family story about these two people and other members of the family. By offering time to the donor, we have enriched our history in a small but wonderful way.

The Archives provides a means to raise the profile of a small and marginalised part of the national story and to integrate it into that bigger story
The Archives has always been clear that it aims not merely to collect and preserve Australia’s queer past – but to celebrate it. And to take it to the wider world. Within our limited resources we have managed, especially over the past decade or so, so bring the richness of our past to public notice. We organise an annual GLQ history conference (one of the few conferences on our history to be held on a regular basis anywhere in the world). This conference welcomes established and newer academics, students and independent scholars to participate in a supportive and encouraging environment and to share their work. Out of these conferences we have published two edited collections, with a third in production now. We also have an annual fourth year thesis prize, using this as a way to collect work that would otherwise be lost, despite its research value.

PhD researchers are probably our biggest group of users, bust senior academics, filmmakers, novelists, artists are also well-represented. Their productions help bring the queer past to life for wide audiences.

The Archives reaches audiences in a way that most collecting institutions aspire to do
Attracting audiences is an important part of most collecting and heritage institutions these days. The archives has had considerable success in this, and could serve as inspiration to others. Activities such as history walks, exhibitions, public lectures, publishing, have given GLQ history a profile out of all proportion to its size. Our history walks usually attract 50-100 people, but attract mainstream publicity. The ‘Camp as ...’ exhibition held in the Melbourne town hall gallery in 2005 attracted one of the largest attendances ever. A Melbourne University public lecture was delivered to a packed house. These are events that are noted not only by those of us organising them or attending – but also by the staff of mainstream institutions who are not unaware of the numbers they attract. or of the enthusiastic response that they get from wide audiences.

Such events can be a drain on resources, of course, but there is a flexibility here. We can organise them as regularly or occasionally as we want. There are fewer competing demands on our time, fewer competing priorities than national or mainstream institutions have to juggle, fewer stakeholders to appease than mainstream organisations have to take account of.

In conclusion
I have tried to suggest here some of the ways in which the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives despite – and sometimes because of – or small size, limited resources, and volunteer base has lessons for bigger organisations. I am arguing that organisations like ours – and we exist in many cities around the world – are doing important work. In celebrating the GLQ past we should be celebrating all of those whose work makes the preservation and dissemination of that past possible ... and so pleasurable.


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