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The Historian as Archivist and Archives as Historical Practice: The Archive of Lesbian Oral Testimony

Posted by Danielle Cooper
23 January 2013 - 11:16am

In her blog post for THEN/Hier on December 21, “Looking for Ruth Home: The Trials and Triumphs of Writing a History of Museum Education,” Kate Zankowicz described how the lack of archival documentation on her research topic, women's roles in museum pedagogy, has necessitated her to turn to other sources for her research, most notably, oral history interviews. Those pursuing lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBT) history have faced similar obstacles when looking to the archival record and also often rely on oral history methods for data collection (see, for example, Kennedy and Davis’ Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold or Marc Stein’s City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves). As LGBT studies become increasingly popular in the academy, furthermore, there is now opportunity for scholars of LGBT subject matter to transform their research projects (including oral histories) into LGBT archives in the academy.


            The Archive of Lesbian Oral Testimony (A LOT) at Simon Fraser University (SFU) is one example of the new LGBT archives inspired by LGBT-related scholarly pursuits. Founded by SFU history professor Elise Chenier in 2010, the archive houses oral testimonies in a variety of forms including: oral histories, documentary films, radio and television programs, and home videos. Chenier is a well-known lesbian historian and A LOT also contains her collection of oral history data. As Chenier explains in her 2009 article, “Hidden From Historians: Preserving Lesbian History in Canada,” there are numerous barriers to preserving lesbian oral history in Canada that the establishing A LOT helps to rectify including: “lack of training, an absence of financial resources, and a failure to put in place a plan to donate research material to an archive” (247).


            As the A LOT case demonstrates, creating an archives is a potential mechanism for historians to promote the collection, preservation and dissemination of information in their research area. Archives creation is not only important for future scholarly research, but also as an educational tool more for undergraduates and the public at large. Historians are also great candidates for creating and working within archives because of their high level of experience researching in archival settings and collecting their own historical data.


           Creating and maintaining archives, even on a small scale and with institutional support, can be a massive undertaking for those involved in other pursuits within academia. Institutional support, furthermore, remains unobtainable for many with topics that the academy does not consider valuable. For example, until very recently, LGBT studies were virtually non-existent and marginalized within the academy, and by extension, the majority of LGBT archives existed in grassroots, autonomous settings. For this reason, my next blog post will focus on the challenges and opportunities for pedagogical engagement in grassroots archival settings via LGBT grassroots archives.

See: Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony 


Do you challenge heteronormative ideas about gender in your history lessons? How?



Chenier, Elise. “Hidden From Historians: Preserving Lesbian History in Canada.”  Archivaria 68 (2009): 247-269. Print.

 Kennedy, Elizabeth Kapovsky and Davis, Madeline D. Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

Stein, Marc. City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945-1972. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.