by Angela Kroeger and Yumi Ohira
The Queer Omaha Archives (QOA) is an ongoing effort by the University of Nebraska at Omaha Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections to collect and preserve Omaha’s LGBTQIA+ history. This is still a fairly new initiative at the UNO Libraries, having been launched in June 2016. This blog post is adapted and expanded from a presentation entitled “Show Us Your Omaha: Combatting LGBTQ+ Archival Silences,” originally given at the June 2017 Nebraska Library Association College & University Section spring meeting. The QOA was only a year old at that point, and now that another year (plus change) has passed, the collection has continued to grow, and we’ve learned some new lessons.
So here are the top takeaways from UNO’s experience with the QOA.
#6. Words have power, and sometimes also baggage.
Words sometimes mean different things to different people. Each person’s life experience lends context to the way they interpret the words they hear. And certain words have baggage.
We named our collecting initiative the Queer Omaha Archives because in our case, “queer” was the preferred term for all LGBTQIA+ people as well as referring to the academic discipline of queer studies. In the early 1990s, the community in Omaha most commonly referred to themselves as “gays and lesbians.” Later on, bisexuals were included, and the acronym “GLB” came into more common use. Eventually, when trans people were finally acknowledged, it became “GLBT.” Then there was a push to switch the order to “LGBT.” And then more letters started piling on, until we ended up with the LGBTQIA+ commonly used today. Sometimes, it is taken even further, and we’ve seen LGBTQIAPK+, LGBTQQIP2SAA, LGBTQIAGNC, and other increasingly long and difficult-to-remember variants. (Although, Angela confesses to finding QUILTBAG to be quite charming.) The acronym keeps shifting, but we didn’t want our name to shift, so we followed the students’ lead (remember the QTS “Cuties”?) and just went with “queer.” “Queer” means everyone.
Except . . . “queer” has baggage. Heavy, painful baggage. At Pride 2016, an older man, who had donated materials to our archive, stopped by our booth and we had a conversation about the word. For him, it was the slur his enemies had been verbally assaulting him with for decades. The word still had a sharp edge for him. Angela (being younger than this donor, but older than most of the students on campus) acknowledged that they were just old enough for the word to be startling and sometimes uncomfortable. But many Millennials and Generation Z youths, as well as some older adults, have embraced “queer” as an identity. Notably, many of the younger people on campus have expressed their disdain for being put into boxes. Identifying as “gay” or “lesbian” or “bi” seems too limiting to them. Our older patron left our booth somewhat comforted by the knowledge that for much of the population, especially the younger generations, “queer” has lost its sting and taken on a positive, liberating openness.
But what about other LGBTQIA+ people who haven’t stopped by to talk to us, to learn what we mean when we call our archives “queer”? Who feels sufficiently put off by this word that they might choose against sharing their stories with our archive? We aren’t planning to change our name, but we are aware that our choice of word may give some potential donors and potential users a reason to hesitate before approaching us.
So whatever community your archive serves, think about the words that community uses to describe themselves, and the words others use to describe them, and whether those words might have connotations you don’t intend.
#7. Find your community. Partnerships, donors, and volunteers are the keys to success.
It goes without saying that archives are built from communities. We don’t (usually) create the records. We invite them, gather them, describe them, preserve them, and make them available to all, but the records (usually) come from somewhere else.
Especially if you’re building an archive for an underrepresented community, you need buy-in from the members of that community if you want your project to be successful. You need to prove that you’re going to be trustworthy, honorable, reliable stewards of the community’s resources. You need someone in your archive who is willing and able to go out into that community and engage with them. For us, that was UNO Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections Director Amy Schindler, who has a gift for outreach. Though herself cis and straight, she has put in the effort to prove herself a friend to Omaha’s LGBTQIA+ community.
You also need members of that community to be your advocates. For us, our advocates were our first donors, the people who took that leap of faith and trusted us with their resources. We started with our own university. The work of the archivist and the archives would not have been possible without the collaboration and support of campus partners. UNO GSRC Director Dr. Jessi Hitchins and UNO Sociology Professor Dr. Jay Irwin together provided the crucial mailing list for the QOA’s initial publicity and networking. Dr. Irwin and his students collected the interviews which launched the LGBTQ+ Voices oral history project. Retired UNO professor Dr. Meredith Bacon donated her personal papers and extensive library of trans resources. From outside the UNO community, Terry Sweeney, who with his partner Pat Phalen had served as editor of The New Voice of Nebraska, donated a complete set of that publication, along with a substantial collection of papers, photographs, and artifacts, and he volunteered in the archives for many weeks, creating detailed and accurate descriptions of the items. These four people, and many others, have become our advocates, friends, and champions within the Omaha LGBTQIA+ community.
Our lesson here: Find your champions. Prove your trustworthiness, and your champions will help open doors into the community.
#8. Be respectful, be interested, and be present.
Outreach is key to building connections, bringing in both donors and users for the collection. This isn’t Field of Dreams, where “If you build it, they will come.” You need to forge the partnerships first, in order to even be able to build it. And they won’t come if they don’t know about it and don’t believe in its value. (“They” in this case meaning the community or communities your archives serve, and “it” of course meaning your archives or special collections for that community.)
Yumi and Angela are both behind-the-scenes technical services types, so we don’t have quite as much contact with patrons and donors as some others in our department, but we’ve helped out staffing tables at events, such as Pride, Transgender Day of Remembrance, and Transgender Day of Visibility events. We also work to create a welcoming atmosphere for guests who come to the archives for events, tours, and research. We recognize the critical importance of the work our director does, going out and meeting people, attending events, talking to everyone, and inviting everyone to visit. As our director Amy Schindler said in the article “Collaborative Approaches to Digital Projects,” “Engagement with community partners is key . . .”
There’s also something to be said for simply ensuring that folks within the archives, and the library as a whole for that matter, have a basic awareness of the QOA and other collecting initiatives, so that we can better fulfill our mission of connecting people to the resources they need. After all, when someone walks into the library, before they even reach the archives, any staff member might be their first point of contact. So be sure to do outreach within your own institution, as well.
#9. Let me sing you the song of my administrative support.
The QOA was conceived by the efforts from UNO students, UNO employees, and Omaha communities to address the underrepresentation of the LGBTQIA+ communities in Omaha.
The initiative of the QOA was inspired by Josh Burford who delivered a presentation about collecting and archiving historical materials related to queering history. This presentation was co-hosted by UNO’s Gender and Sexuality Resource Center in the LGBTQIA+ History Month. After this event, the UNO community became keenly interested in collecting and preserving historical materials and oral history interviews about “Queer Omaha,” and began collaborating with our local LGBTQIA+ communities. In Summer 2016, the QOA was officially launched to preserve the enduring value of the legacy of LGBTQIA+ communities in greater Omaha. The QOA is an effort to combat an archival silence in the community, and digital collections and digital engagement are especially effective tools for making LGBTQIA+ communities aware that the archives welcome their records!
But none of this would have been possible without administrative support. If the library administration or the university administration had been indifferent—or worse, hostile—to the idea of building a LGBTQIA+ archive, we might not have been allowed to allocate staff time and other resources to this project. We might have been told “no.” Thank goodness, our library dean is 100% on board. And UNO is deeply committed to inclusion as one of our core values, which has created a campus-wide openness to the LGBTQIA+ community, resulting in an environment perfectly conducive to building this archive. In fact, in November 2017, UNO was identified as the most LGBTQIA+-friendly college in the state of Nebraska by the Campus Pride Index in partnership with BestColleges.com. An initiative like the QOA will always go much more smoothly when your administration is on your side.
#10. The Neverending Story.
We recognize that we still have a long way to go. There are quite a few gaps within our collection. We have the papers of a trans woman, but only oral histories from trans men. We don’t yet have anything from intersex folks or asexuals. We have very little from queer people of color or queer immigrants, although we do have some oral histories from those groups, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Jay Irwin, who launched the oral history project, and Luke Wegener, who was hired as a dedicated oral history associate for UNO Libraries. A major focus on the LGBTQIA+ oral history interview project is filling identified gaps within the collection, actively seeking more voices of color and other underrepresented groups within the LGBTQIA+ community. However, despite our efforts to increase the diversity within the collection, we haven’t successfully identified potential donors or interviewees to represent all of the letters within LGBTQIA, much less the +.
This isn’t—and should never be—a series of checkboxes on a list. “Oh, we have a trans woman. We don’t need any more trans women.” No, that’s not how it works. We seek to fill the gaps, while continuing to welcome additional material from groups already represented. We are absolutely not going to turn away a white cis gay man just because we already have multiple resources from white cis gay men. Every individual is different. Every individual brings a new perspective. We want our collection to include as many voices as possible. So we need to promote our collection more. We need to do more outreach. We need to attract more donors, users, and champions. This will remain an ongoing effort without an endpoint. There is always room for growth.
Angela Kroeger is the Archives and Special Collections associate at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a lifelong Nebraskan. They received their B.A. in English from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and their Master’s in Library and Information Science from the University of Missouri.
Yumi Ohira is the Digital Initiatives Librarian at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Ohira is originally from Japan where she received a B.S. in Applied Physics from Fukuoka University. Ohira moved to the United States to attend University of Kansas and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale where she was awarded an M.F.A. in Studio Art. Ohira went on to study at Emporia State University, Kansas, where she received an M.L.S. and Archive Studies Certification.