Lesbian Herstory Archives Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Lesbian Herstory Archives, an all-volunteer organization that preserves lesbian history, distinguishes itself from other archives by accepting material from all lesbians, not just the famous. Also, the archives maintains that its materials can be better cared for and preserved, and their accessibility better ensured, by entrusting them to other lesbians and not to academic or other professional archivists in an academic or other setting.

Summary of Event

In the fall of 1973, a few lesbian members of the Gay Academic Union, Gay Academic Union which had been meeting in New York City, formed a separate consciousness-raising group that conceived the idea of an archive for lesbian history. Joan Nestle and Deborah Edel served as the first coordinators of the newly founded Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA) and were joined by Judith Schwarz in 1978. They would continue in these roles assisted by a coordinating committee, volunteers, and occasional interns. LHA has always been an all-volunteer organization. [kw]Lesbian Herstory Archives Is Founded (Fall, 1973) [kw]Herstory Archives Is Founded, Lesbian (Fall, 1973) [kw]Archives Is Founded, Lesbian Herstory (Fall, 1973) Lesbian Herstory Archives Archives;lesbian [c]Cultural and intellectual history;Fall, 1973: Lesbian Herstory Archives Is Founded[0990] [c]Organizations and institutions;Fall, 1973: Lesbian Herstory Archives Is Founded[0990] [c]Feminism;Fall, 1973: Lesbian Herstory Archives Is Founded[0990] Nestle, Joan Edel, Deborah Schwarz, Judith

From the beginning, the organization’s goal was to preserve material about lesbians in an environment controlled by lesbians. Seeing invisibility as a form of oppression, the organizers wanted to rectify the silence about lesbian lives that characterized mainstream archives. In particular, LHA sought to preserve and share the stories of any lesbian who wished to contribute materials. Nestle was especially concerned that the history of certain lesbian communities was fast disappearing, particularly the experiences of the working class butch/femme bar culture; Nestle wanted to preserve their memories.

The archives’ initial collection consisted of personal papers and books donated by Nestle and Edel. Housed in their Upper West Side apartment’s pantry beginning in 1974, LHA opened for community use in 1976. In 1980, the organization incorporated as a nonprofit organization using the name Lesbian Herstory Educational Foundation, Inc. Volunteers offered speaking engagements, first bringing samples of materials and later presenting slide shows. A series titled “At Home with the archives” featured monthly readings, talks, films, and presentations that drew audiences ranging from 10 to 150 people. LHA also began issuing a regular newsletter. Through these outreach efforts, the archives reached lesbians who later donated letters, photographs, diaries, and other items. The organization also built its volunteer base, in part through weekly “work nights” that welcomed anyone who wanted to assist with filing, sorting, and mailing.

The collection quickly filled the majority of Nestle’s apartment. Some items were moved to offsite storage, making retrieval difficult. The crowded file drawers on site also posed challenges to visitors. Recognizing the need for more space, LHA began a fund-raising drive in 1985 to raise money for its own building. With the help of contributions and a bank loan, LHA purchased a four-story brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Park Slope, Brooklyn, Lesbian Herstory Archives Lesbian architects and construction workers renovated it and made it wheelchair accessible. Three of the levels have been filled with archival materials, while the top floor holds a caretaker’s apartment. LHA reopened in the new location in 1993. By June of 1996, the archives had paid off the building and held a mortgage-burning party to celebrate.

LHA’s guiding principles emphasize that any lesbian may use the materials; however, no questions about sexual orientation are asked of visitors. Others may also use the collections, although certain items were contributed with the stipulation that no man ever see them. Although individuals must make an appointment to visit, no academic credentials are necessary. While materials at LHA have been used to create books, films, and artwork, they are also available simply for browsing. To facilitate community access, LHA is not located on an academic campus. In order to maintain autonomy, it does not accept any funding from mainstream or government sources. Rather, the organization is supported by grassroots fund-raising efforts and occasional grants from radical funding sources.


The Lesbian Herstory Archives began its collections before mainstream institutions had started to acknowledge the importance of preserving lesbian materials. In addition to asserting the significance of lesbian lives, the organization was notable for its approach. Rather than employing professional librarians or archivists, the coordinators taught themselves the archivists’ craft, sometimes by trial and error. Part of the LHA mission has been accessibility to all lesbians, and they have understood that some women would be intimidated by a more traditional archive, which accounts for LHA’s location in a neighborhood rather than on an academic campus.

Joan Nestle defended this approach when people such as Jim Monahan from Chicago’s Gay Academic Union expressed disagreement. Monahan believed the preservation of lesbian and gay historical materials should take place within mainstream institutions, where academic experts could develop collections and only qualified researchers would be permitted to use them. LHA’s position, in contrast, was that mainstream institutions had yet to acknowledge the importance of these materials and that even if such interest arose it might be considered only a fad. LHA maintained that its materials would be better cared for and their accessibility better ensured by entrusting them to other lesbians.

LHA houses more than twenty thousand books, twelve thousand photos, three hundred special collections, sixteen hundred periodicals, thirteen hundred subject files, and miles of film and video footage. Unlike many archives, LHA also accepts donations of objects such as posters, T-shirts, buttons, personal recordings, art, film, and memorabilia. While other archives are typically selective about what materials they add to their collections, LHA accepts any contribution from any lesbian. In addition to providing the community with access to the materials, LHA offers events and a safe place for women to gather. Lesbian Herstory Archives Archives;lesbian

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cohen, Mark Francis. “Neighborhood Report: Park Slope; In Lesbian Archive, Education and Sanctuary.” The New York Times, April 7, 1996, p. 9.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cvetkovich, Ann. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “In the Archives of Lesbian Feeling: Documentary and Popular Culture.” Camera Obscura 17, no. 1 (2002): 107-147.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edel, Deborah. “Building Cultural Memories: The Work of the Lesbian Herstory Archives.” In The New Our Right to Love: A Lesbian Resource Book, edited by Ginny Vida. New York: Touchstone Books, 1996.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lesbian Herstory Archives. http://www.lesbian herstoryarchives.org.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nestle, Joan. “The Will to Remember: The Lesbian Herstory Archives of New York.” Journal of Homosexuality 34, nos. 3/4 (1998): 225-235.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strock, Carren. “Three-Dimensional Herstory.” Ms. 3, no. 1 (1992): 59.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thistlethwaite, Polly J. “Building ’A Home of Our Own’: The Construction of the Lesbian Herstory Archives.” In Daring to Find Our Names: The Search for Lesbigay Library History, edited by James V. Carmichael, Jr. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “The Lesbian Herstory Archives.” In Gay and Lesbian Library Service, edited by Ellen Greenblatt. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1990.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. and comp. “An Activist’s Guide to Lesbian History.” http://manta.library.colostate .edu/research/gnl/NotJustPassingThrough _merge.pdf.

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Categories: History