Abigail Christian 2016-03-14 16:15:57
For an archives to tell the story—the entire story—of a community, the people who make up that community need a certain amount of stability to document their lives in the first place. To produce materials and then retain them for years requires stable housing and disposable income, a situation that many in historically marginalized communities are not always privy to. This is one of the challenges that Dr. Aaron Devor, founder of the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria at British Columbia (http://www.uvic.ca/transgenderarchives/), faces when collecting and preserving the history of the transgender community. “Large segments of the transgender population have been unable to create material that is lasting or unable to keep materials—and keep them safe—long-term,” says Devor. “We do have these gaps in the collection, and probably always will have.” Happenstance Beginnings Devor, a sociology professor, hadn’t set out to preserve the history of the trans community in this way. It all started in Chicago with his friend Rikki Swin, who established the Rikki Swin Institute, a center for transgender research and education that included a large library and collections from transgender pioneers such as Ari Kane, Betty Ann Lind, and Virginia Prince. The center hadn’t gone as well as Swin had hoped, and eventually she closed it. One day over lunch, Swin told Devor that she was thinking of bringing the collection to Victoria, where she lived. Devor suggested she donate it to the University of Victoria, and after some time, she agreed. Initially, Devor says, they didn’t think of the collection as a transgender archives, but as the Rikki Swin Institute collection. Then another large collection came from the family of Reed Erickson. Erickson was also a transgender pioneer and a philanthropist who established the Erickson Educational Foundation, which provided financial assistance to underserved fields of study such as transsexualism. Erickson’s daughter, with whom Devor had been working closely in research, told Devor she was moving and, similarly, didn’t know what to do with Erickson’s papers. Devor suggested a few places she could donate them to, and then added the University of Victoria. Because of her work with Devor, Erickson’s daughter chose the university. It was around then that Devor started thinking that maybe he had a transgender archives. Devor officially announced the Transgender Archives at the World Professional Association for Transgender Health in 2011, and more materials started coming in, most significantly from the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, which now makes up the second largest collection in the archives. “Our goal is to bring together in one location what was collected and preserved by other people,” says Devor. In other words, to tell as much of the story as they can. Achieving that goal may even be possible now that Devor has recently been named the first Chair in Transgender Studies at the University of Victoria, the only such position worldwide. The Tawani Foundation in Chicago donated $1 million to fund the chair for five years. The funding will further research in the field and assist in getting the results of research to those who need it to make life better for trans people. Sharing the Story One challenge the archives has faced—and a good one to have—is the sheer volume of material. The archives has records from seventeen countries and in every medium—news clippings and magazines, organizational records, personal correspondence, speeches from conferences, DVDs with transgender characters, photographs, match books, greeting cards, and items from bars that hosted drag shows. If all the books and boxes were lined on a shelf, they would take up the length of a football field. But although these collections are the largest after the university’s own records, the Transgender Archives doesn’t have its own staff, and so processing moves slowly. Funding could help to hire archivists. Another challenge is wider access. Although the archives is open to the public and receives a steady stream of visitors, its location within Victoria, a smaller city on Canada’s western coast, is out of the way for many who would benefit from it. That’s why Devor and his team have been collaborating with the Digital Transgender Archives (DTA) to make key sections from the archives available online. The DTA, based at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, recently launched the website www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net to connect lone repositories, create access for primary source materials, and define a common language in transgender research. Within the trans community, people have been very pleased to have a place as well established, secure, and supportive as the University of Victoria for holding their collections, and donations continue to come in, telling a more diverse narrative. “It’s an emotional matter,” says Devor of those who let go of their collections. “They’re placing what they’ve collected, cherished, and guarded, sometimes for decades, in someone else’s hands.” At the Transgender Archives, their stories are in very good hands.
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.