An Archive for All

How the Transgender Archives work to create community connections

January 2, 2018

2016 Moving Trans History Forward conference. Photo: Courtesy of University of Victoria Office of the Chair in Transgender Studies
Presenters and attendees mark the end of the 2016 Moving Trans History Forward conference with Aaron Devor (third row center, in blue shirt). Photo: Courtesy of University of Victoria Office of the Chair in Transgender Studies

University of Victoria (B.C.) Libraries is home to the largest physical collection of transgender-related material worldwide. Lara Wilson, university archivist and director of special collections, explains how the Transgender Archives has evolved from cataloged items to community outreach in its seven years.

In 2007, Aaron Devor, dean of graduate studies and professor of sociology at the University of Victoria (UVic), asked if our libraries were interested in accepting a large donation of archival and rare print materials related to transgender history from the Rikki Swin Institute (RSI) collection, and if we were open to expanding our holdings in this area. The answer to both questions was yes.

RSI was established in Chicago and open from 2001 to 2004. Its collection includes rare books, periodicals, and archives on leading American trans activists such as Virginia Prince and Ariadne Kane, organizations, and such conferences as the annual Fantasia Fair and the International Foundation for Gender Education. The collection took some time to sort and catalog, and the donation was the beginning of a new acquisition direction for us. In 2011, we formally launched the Transgender Archives, which would become the largest physical collection of transgender-related archival and rare print material in the world.

Seven years later, the archives include donations from philanthropist and trans man Reed Erickson and the University of Ulster (UK) Trans-Gender Archive collection. We’ve also focused our efforts on outreach. We want to emphasize the accessibility of the materials and the fact that these histories were being preserved for all—not just academic researchers. Many people have little experience accessing archival and noncirculating library materials, and outreach was our way to turn a potentially intimidating experience into a welcoming one.

The libraries continue to work closely with Devor, who is now the chair of transgender studies at the university—a donation-funded position—and the academic director of the Transgender Archives. The role of the chair is to further this outreach and knowledge mobilization, whether through teaching and mentoring in the area of transgender studies, hosting visiting or local scholars, or providing orientation tours of the Transgender Archives’ holdings. Beyond appealing to the UVic population, the chair is committed to creating a safe and positive space where all transgender, gender nonbinary, and two-spirit people can meet and build community.

Many people have little experience accessing archival and noncirculating library materials, and outreach was our way to turn a potentially intimidating experience into a welcoming one.

We have been working to bring education events and initiatives to a more public audience. We recently hosted a performance and workshop by author and gender theorist Kate Bornstein as part of our ongoing speaker series. The chair’s monthly drop-in gathering, “Nachos and Drinks,” is not just open to students, but anyone who self-identifies as transgender, gender nonbinary, or two-spirit and is looking for a casual, friendly place to make connections and share experiences. In the past, we’ve used movie screenings, theater performances, and research presentations open to all to act as a conduit to the department and collection.

The Transgender Archives and the chair of transgender studies have also undertaken major outreach initiatives in the form of a book and a conference. Now in its second edition, The Transgender Archives: Foundations for the Future, authored by Devor and published by UVic Libraries, is an illustrated nonfiction primer on trans activism and research while highlighting items from the collection. The book was a Lambda Literary Award finalist in 2015 and has been downloaded more than 16,000 times.

Our biennial conference, Moving Trans History Forward (MTHF), started in 2014 and has raised awareness of our collections, transgender history, and current initiatives in trans, nonbinary, and two-spirit communities. This year MTHF will be held March 22–25 on the UVic campus, and will feature an art exhibit and attendee-nominated keynote speaker Andrea Jenkins, a black transgender woman who made headlines when she was elected to Minneapolis City Council in November.

The response to our efforts has been overwhelmingly positive. Word has spread that our recurring and often free or by-donation activities are great for knowledge mobilization and community building. The more we engage, the greater the dialogue has become—and that’s extremely rewarding.