With the Queering the Archives Initiative moving into its second year, Josie Cohen-Rodriguez and Lotus Norton-Wisla are focusing on building a student-centered and community-driven LGBTQ+ archive in the Washington State University Libraries.
“We want to build a broad coalition of folks who are vested in this archive and taking a sense of collaborative ownership,” Cohen-Rodriguez said. “That’s very empowering.”
Other archives in the Pacific Northwest are taking this approach, and Cohen-Rodriguez and Norton-Wisla had the opportunity to visit several of them in July 2023, thanks to a WSU 2023 Transformational Change Initiative (TCI) grant. TCI grants are awarded annually by the Division of Academic Engagement and Student Achievement and are designed to support innovative ideas addressing inclusion, diversity, equity, and access.
Among the stops Cohen-Rodriguez and Norton-Wisla made were the Oregon Historical Society, which has a longstanding partnership with the Gay and Lesbian Archives of the Pacific Northwest (GLAPN) located in Portland, Oregon, and the libraries at the University of Oregon and Oregon State University, both of which house LGBTQ+ collections. Another important stop was at WSU Vancouver Library, where they spoke with library and archives faculty about building relationships and facilitating system-wide access to collections as they become available online.
From all the visits, Norton-Wisla and Cohen-Rodriguez learned that establishing partnerships in your own community is important to the success of building and maintaining LGBTQ+ archives. At Oregon State University, for example, the archivist works so closely with the university’s Pride Center that students feel a sense of collective ownership with the collections there. This type of community-driven approach has inspired Norton-Wisla and Cohen-Rodriguez from the beginning of the Queering the Archives Initiative.
“[OSU’s] projects are designed in ways that support the students and what the students need, as well as alumni,” Norton-Wisla said. “It reinforces our idea of starting close to home with our students and campus community.”
The trip generated a number of ideas for Norton-Wisla and Cohen-Rodriguez on ways they can proceed with their project in the coming months. One such idea is to collect oral histories from WSU’s LGBTQ+ community. It was inspired in part by a partnership between GLAPN and Portland State University (PSU), in which GLAPN helps train PSU students in a senior capstone course to conduct oral histories with queer people in their communities.
“It is definitely a model that we are looking at to see how it could apply to our work,” Norton-Wisla said.
Whether they are tied to a class or not, oral histories are a major part of Norton-Wisla’s and Cohen-Rodriguez’s plans for expanding the WSU LGBTQ+ collection. In preparation for collecting the histories, they are collaborating with the WSU LGBTQ+ community to determine who should be interviewed and who should do the interviewing. The project will be led by a graduate assistant, and undergraduate students will likely have key roles in the project.
“We are starting out with a narrow scope by interviewing people who have close ties to WSU and the surrounding community,” Cohen-Rodriguez said. “We want to capture a narrative of what it is like to live here as a queer person, and what our communities look like.”
It is that local perspective that is largely missing from the materials discovered so far in the WSU archives. Most of the existing materials, according to Cohen-Rodriguez, reflect outsiders looking in with critical eyes. Very few items were produced by WSU students, faculty, staff, and community members.
“It is important that we include first-hand perspectives of their experiences here,” Cohen-Rodriguez said. “We also want to be intentional in honoring and making space for the nuances and different perspectives within our queer community.”
The oral history work and other project initiatives received a boost in August 2023, when Queering the Archives was awarded a $15,000 Washington Digital Heritage Grant.*
The funding allows the team to extend the project’s paid student work, which includes digitization of existing collections, oral history interviews, planning for a spring showcase and community workshop, and traveling to the Northwest Archivists Conference to share information about the project.
The Queering the Archives Initiative is gaining momentum at the same time WSU’s LGBTQ+ Student Center is making plans to celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2024. Norton-Wisla and Cohen-Rodriguez said it is a perfect time to reflect on the documented work from the queer community over those years and the important role WSU alumni have played in that work.
“We would love to connect with alumni we haven’t had contact with to let them know we are here and doing this work,” Cohen-Rodriguez said.
* This grant is supported with funding provided by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services administered by the Library Services and Technology Act, through the Washington State Library, a division of the Office of the Secretary of State.
Read about the Queering the Archives exhibit at WSU.