Friday, August 14, 2009

SAA 2009: Sleeping with the Enemy: Hate Collections in Catholic, Masonic, and LGBTQ Collections (Session 303)

Pride flag, downtown Austin, Texas, evening of 13 August 2009.

This 60-minute session (why did SAA insist on shortening today’s first timeslot?) focused on three repositories that collect materials documenting both the history of organizations and social groups and the history of opposition to them. It drove home the importance of collecting “hate” materials, archivists’ ethical obligations to researchers, and, if possible, reaching out to creators of such materials. I came away convinced that those of us who develop documentation strategies focusing on social groups need to devote at least some attention to identifying and collecting that materials created by the group's detractors and persecutors.

Jeffrey Croteau of the National Heritage Museum, an American history museum with a special focus on Freemasonry and fraternal life, asserted that his institution collects anti-Masonic materials because they are essential to our understanding of Masonry and American history itself. Anti-Masonry has been around for a long time and at times has had a profound impact on American social and political history, and it’s thus important to document. Moreover, the anti-Masonic materials in its collections help to document the persistence of 19th-century conspiracy theories linking Freemasonry, Catholicism, and Baphomet, the goat-demon Masons were accused of worshiping.

James Miller of the University of Western Ontario’s Pride Library stated that he collects homophobic materials because of his professorial commitment to leading students toward truth and because the LGBTQ community’s enemies are indeed known by their published and archival works. The library holds “exposes” of gay life from the 1960s, materials asserting that AIDS was a punishment for homosexuality, and books and manuscripts documenting religious, political, and other expressions of homophobia. The Pride Library’s collecting policy simultaneously sanctions the celebration of all forms of anti-homophobic activity, sanctions (in a negative sense) homophobic material, and demonstrates commitment to freedom of expression and inquiry.

William Kevin Crawley of the University of Notre Dame Archives, which seeks to document the history of the Catholic Church in the United States, noted that anti-Catholicism is an important part of this history. American anti-Catholicism is rooted in the arguments of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, but it was also shaped by nativist opposition to Irish and German Catholic immigration and the belief that one’s primary loyalty should rest with one’s country. Conspiracy theories asserting that the Pope wanted to undermine the United States and that Catholics were secretly doing the Pope’s bidding abounded.

During the discussion session, the question of whether researchers have ever used these materials in order to perpetuate anti-Masonic, homophobic, or anti-Catholic sentiments arose. Miller indicated that he hasn’t gotten any reference requests of this nature, perhaps in part because he requires every researcher to submit a research proposal. Crawley indicated that he had never gotten such requests in person, but suspected that several mailed requests for photocopies were submitted with this purpose in mind. Crawley, who provided the requested photocopies, and Miller both stressed that their commitment to freedom of inquiry would lead them to handle such reference requests as they would any other.

The issue of how the creators of such materials respond to repositories’ collecting activity also arose. Croteau stated that he suspected that many anti-Masonic activists are happy to have their materials added to the National Heritage Museum’s collections because they hope that future researchers will be persuaded by it. Miller noted that one author of a book in the Pride Library’s holdings objected to his work being classified as a “homophobic classic, and the creator of a series of religious pamphlets condemning homosexuality (and Catholicism and Freemasonry!) refused to allow Miller to reproduce his work because he was convinced that universities were under the spell of Satan.

The session ended before we could fully discuss the last question that arose: whether collecting “hate” materials has ever produced backlash from funders or the communities they document. However, Crawley noted that other collecting decisions have been controversial. Notre Dame's conservative student paper published an article condemning an archives exhibit focusing on leftist Catholic groups; the thought that documenting these groups might make it easier to critique them apparently didn’t cross the author’s mind. Moreover, other members of the university community have, to Crawley's dismay, discouraged use of the archives’ anti-Catholic materials: several graduate students have told Crawley that their advisers suggested that they avoid focusing on the unpleasant history of Catholic-Protestant relations.

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