I just got home from a great talk at the Stonewall National Museum and Archives. The talk was about the queer geography of South Florida from the 1970s to today, using census data and advertisements in archived gay magazines to track movements of lesbian and gay households and businesses through different communities in the area. It was fascinating research, and helped me learn quite a bit about the region I currently call home. The most exciting thing to me, though, was getting to see people be excited about archives and archival research.
The Stonewall archives are special to me, since they are where I did most of the research for my master’s thesis. During that research, I had wondered about some of the questions that this talk addressed, but didn’t have the time or the methodological know-how to answer them the way this man did. He went through decades of magazines and created a database of business addresses, which he then used to create a series of GIS maps showing distributions and change over time. This is probably a fairly common method in cultural geography, but I thought it was pretty exciting. Even more so, though, was the clear enthusiasm that this young researcher, who is working on an MA, had when he talked about realizing that this source existed. He talked about discovering that the Stonewall had copies of these old magazines, many of which are fairly marginal “bar rags” that would be hard to track down otherwise, and it was clear that doing archival research was somewhat new to him. I’m so glad he got connected to those resources, and it really speaks to the importance of archives reaching out to a wide range of potential user communities — something we all know, but I think bears repeating.
It also speaks to the importance of community-focused archives that not only preserve records, but provide a venue for disseminating the research that is done on them. It think it is phenomenal that the Stonewall provided a space for this research to be shared in a non-academic context. In addition to sponsoring this talk, they are also displaying some of the maps that the researcher created from his data in one of their gallery spaces, alongside related artifacts. Even more incredible was the number of people who came out to a talk about geography at 7pm on a Friday night! The audience was so engaged, and during the Q&A, several people brought their own memories of being gay in South Florida into the conversation. It was really great to see that kind of conversation happening between an academic and a public audience — a kind of conversation that is far too rare. Local, community-based archives can be great venues for those kinds of events and dialogs, I think largely due to the fact that they already have community buy-in and trust.
During the Q&A, I asked the speaker if he had plans for preserving the data set and maps that he had created during his research. Perhaps not surprisingly, he didn’t seem to have given that much thought before. I don’t know what the scholarly conventions are for preserving research data in geography, but I think those would be a great resource for future researchers. Someone from the Stonewall Museum said that they are definitely planning on keeping copies of his maps, which is wonderful. But I would really love to see them preserve the raw data and the GIS files he used to create the maps. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Stonewall archives, which are entirely volunteer-staffed (albeit by trained archivists) and part of a small non-profit organization, have the capacity to accept and preserve those kind of complicated digital objects. There is a real challenge in how community-run archives can preserve the increasingly digital materials that document their communities. But tonight reminded me how much I believe in those institutions, and how exciting they can be, and I’m confident that they are going to meet the digital challenge, just like the rest of the archival world.