Thursday, August 25, 2011

Leather Archives and Museum

It's been a long day. I presented this morning, and ran the Government Records Section meeting this afternoon. I'm still trying to process everything that happened, so this post focuses on a repository tour that I took yesterday.

The Leather Museum and Archives, which is located in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood, is a library, museum, and archives that collects materials documenting leather, fetishism, sadomasochism, and alternative sexual practices. Its collections document people of all genders and sexual orientations, and its scope is global. (Despite the impression left by the image above--yesterday was fiercely sunny--its building has four walls.)

I decided to go on this tour because I was deeply impressed by the presentation that Leather Archives and Museum executive director, Rick Storer, gave at the 2007 meeting of the Society of American Archivists' Lesbian and Gay Archives Roundtable. The Leather Archives and Museum was established because mainstream archival institutions weren't interested in documenting the history of the leather community, and its ongoing ties to the community are essential to its survival. At the same time, it has a small but dedicated and inventive professional staff who have successfully secured several grants and attracted volunteers and interns. It's a really good example of how to launch and sustain a small archival program and how to fill gaps in the documentary record.

The Leather Archives and Museum library, which also serves as its archival reading room, contains books, scholarly publications, and other published materials. Its pulp fiction collection, which can be seen in the above photograph, is particularly comprehensive. It also has a sizable magazine collection, but most of the titles have ceased publication: the types of information that they once contained is now disseminated via the Internet, and, like many other smaller organizations, the Leather Archives and Museum is not in a position to capture Web content or manage large quantities of digital files.

Neither the Library of Congress nor the Dewey Decimal classification systems work particularly well with the library's holdings, and as a result staff devised an in-house cataloging schema for the materials. For example, all of the "BDSM--How to and Informational" materials are grouped together . . . right under a "Read" poster featuring a member of the Chicago leather community.

It's not possible to check out library materials, but the Leather Archives and Museum will lend materials via Inter-Library Loan; to date, almost all ILL requests have come from academic institutions.

Archival collections, which are housed in a secure, climate-controlled 1, 425 cu. ft. room, include personal papers of people involved in the leather or other communities, records of leather and other organizations (the records of the Chicago Hellfire Club are visible above), and other materials; as is often the case with records of small groups, the organizational records are sometimes maintained by multiple individuals and may be transferred to the archives somewhat haphazardly. The archives also includes a sizeable vertical file documenting leather and other alternative sexuality bars and other venues throughout the United States and the rest of the world.

The museum collection contains a wide array of original erotic art and artifacts, some of which are on display in a small auditorium or in one of several exhibit halls. They document many different communities of alternative sexuality. The list of rules above was originally posed in the Mineshaft, the legendary Greenwich Village sex club that New York City health officials shut down in 1985.

This exhibit panel chronicles the emergence of the deaf leather community.

The newly created A Room of Her Own exhibit focuses on the women's leather community. Rick Storer noted that individual women and women's leather organizations have been far less forthcoming about donating materials than their male counterparts, and as a result the Leather Museum and Archives is proactively reaching out to them.

If you look closely at the above photograph, you'll note that I obliterated, none too skillfully, a few of the details in a couple of pieces of artwork depicted in it. I realize that some of my tens of readers visit this blog during the workday, and I try very hard to keep l'Archivista safe for just about everyone's workplace. My self-imposed obligation to do this highlights precisely why repositories such as the Leather Archives and Museum are so important. As one of the other tour participants noted, mainstream repositories -- particularly those that receive public funds -- are often reluctant to accept archival collections that contain any sort of erotic or sexual content. Sexuality is nonetheless an important aspect of the human experience, and if we are serious about ensuring that the documentary record is comprehensive, we need to preserve and provide access to materials that document individual sexual identity and behavior and the emergence and evolution of sexual communities. Community-based archives such as the Leather Archives and Museum are showing the rest of us how to do so.

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