I was fortunate to recently visit the Gerber Hart Library and Archives here in Chicago, and the director Wil Brant led me on a tour. I am interested in archives with a strong community focus and in histories often underrepresented in typical repositories, and this is in part why I reached out to this library and archives. This institution reflects these ideas, and asserts its ability to be a “conduit for change” through its resources and programming (Gerber Hart, 2015). The library and archives believes “knowledge is the key to dispelling homophobia” (Gerber Hart, 2015).
Gerber Hart is a collecting institution “dedicated to meeting the information needs of its unique community in a safe atmosphere that promotes research, exploration, and discovery” (Gerber Hart, 2015). The holdings of the institution can be broken up into three broad categories: circulating library material, archival collections, and special collections. The focus of my tour were the roughly 150 archival collections, though we also discussed the 3D and material culture objects comprising the special collections. The collecting scope of the archival branch of the institution is the: “records, papers, and other realia of lesbian and gay life, focusing primarily in the Chicago metropolitan area and the Midwest” (Gerber Hart, 2015).
I started getting a better sense for the archival collections after taking in the temporary exhibition Gay is Good: Homophile Activism before Stonewall in the gallery space down the hallway from the library and archives. Featured were documents, photographs, pamphlets, magazines, books, buttons, and a typewriter. My tour officially began in the reading room and circulating stacks, where Wil discussed the historical context of the institution. We then walked through the two closed-stack storage areas, which housed rare library materials as well as archival and special collections. The collections seemed well organized, and they were housed in archival boxes; there was an emphasis on stewardship. It was clear throughout the tour that archival principles of intellectual and physical control were a primary focus for the management of their collections. Gerber Hart moved into the space shortly after it was renovated, and they were able to make requests of the building owners - including the installation of separate HVAC units for each of their storage spaces. Included too are two processing areas, one of which is large enough to fit several large tables.
In its nearly 40 year history, the archives has acquired the majority of its collections through donations. It is a well-known institution given its status as the “Midwest’s largest LGBTQ circulating library” and its drive to develop relevant services and programming. As such, strong ties exist between the LGBTQ community and the library and archives, which results in consistent archival donations. Additionally, the library and archive maintains its own institutional archives, which consists in part of previous presidents’ records. Some acquisitions are solicited, especially instances where organizations may be dissolving, but this requires considerable time and effort.
The content of the archival collections varies, and it includes documents, posters, photographs, and audio-video materials. The institution does not yet have the capacity - from a staffing or infrastructure perspective - to begin collecting born digital material. There is a particular strength in records from individuals and organizations, while fewer visual archival items are represented. Wil explained that this can likely be attributed to the fear of homophobic retribution and retaliation from those processing photographic and film material, and to unaccepting family members destroying or hiding what materials may exist. In short, absences in the archival collection can be attributed to restrictive societal norms and laws previously on the books.
This institution fills an important role as a repository of material of LGBTQ life in Chicago, the Midwest, and beyond. Wil helped me to understand that up until fairly recently, mainstream libraries and archives largely were not interested in acquiring material for or about this community. This is especially true with many public libraries. As such, Gerber Hart filled a gap, focusing specifically on circulating, archival, and special collections which were overlooked or rejected by other institutions.
More recently, with other repositories slowly starting to expand their scopes, and with the rise of information being made available on the internet, the focus of Gerber Hart’s users has shifted. Use of the circulating collections has decreased, and research requests for their archival and special collections has increased. As a result, more individuals outside of the LGBTQ community are using the materials, especially professionals developing book and film projects, college students doing research, and public school children working on Chicago Metro History Fair projects. The heart of the user base will likely remain in the community, especially as younger generations seek information about their shared history, but it is heartening to see interest spread and grow. I appreciate how inclusive the space is and how that is reflected in the wide range of users.
It is incredible to me how much the library and archives are able to accomplish, especially given its size and resources. There are currently two staff - both work part-time, and only one position is permanent. Wil indicated that there are approximately 30 volunteers and interns contributing to the daily operations. Much of his time is dedicated to managing and coordinating the activities of those donating their time. Graduate students in MLIS programs have interned at Gerber Hart, and a comprehensive collection list has recently been created. This is an important resource for users to discover what is available, especially since it is accessible to researchers remotely via the website. There are currently a few finding aids available, and work is underway to create more. Digitization largely happens on an ad hoc basis, and larger projects with special funding utilize contracted services.
The library and archives is a stand-alone institution, it is not a part of any other library, archive, or museum. It does have a symbiotic relationship with Howard Brown Health, which has one of its satellite offices in the same building as Gerber Hart. Howard Brown Health is a health and social service nonprofit organization focused on the wellbeing of the LGBTQ community in Chicago (Howard Brown Health, n.d.). The nonprofit encourages the development and display of archival and special collection exhibitions in their waiting and program areas.
I learned so much during my trip. Wil taking time out of his busy schedule was such a nice reminder how giving folks are in archives, libraries, and museums.
Gerber Hart Library and Archives. (2015). About. Retrieved from http://www.gerberhart.org/about-gerberhart
Howard Brown Health. (n.d.). Mission and overview. Retrieved from https://howardbrown.org/mission-and-overview/