Written by Joan Nestle
Founded in 1974, the Lesbian Herstory Archives serves as a library, museum, and community gathering and performance space for collective lesbian memory, where the word “lesbian” is used in its most inclusive meaning. Born out of a time of historical deprivation, LHA now houses the world’s largest print and non-print collection of materials by and about lesbians and their communities—including books, unpublished papers, conference proceedings, newsletters, photographs, slides, periodicals, audio-tapes, CDs, DVDS, videos, films, subject and organizational files, reference tools, artwork, calendars, banners, manuscripts, music, clothing, and buttons.
For over thirty years, thousands of visitors have heard one of our volunteers say, “send us something in the language you make love in.” From its beginning, the Lesbian Herstory Archives has worked to collect the markings of everyday lesbians with the goal to be a social history of our complex communities. A grassroots project of emancipation, staffed by volunteer librarians and archivists, LHA is where activism and professional expertise join hands to preserve the lesbian past, to enrich the cultural life of the lesbian present and to provide clues to dreaming about lesbian futures. In doing all of this, LHA has become an important collection for all who are concerned with social change in any society.
For our first fifteen years of existence, the archives resided in Joan Nestle’s apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In 1985, with books three-deep on the shelves and every spare inch of space taken up with lesbiana, we began a fundraising campaign to find a permanent home. In 1990, with money donated by lesbians worldwide, we purchased a four-story, turn-of –the-20th-century limestone townhouse in one of the historic areas of Park Slope, Brooklyn. We had our official opening in June 1993.
The house retains an amazing amount of its original detail, including beautiful mahogany wainscoting, oak floors, leaded glass doors on built-in cabinets, mahogany closets, and marble sinks. We added built-in bookshelves, a workstation, an outside wheelchair lift, and a wheelchair-accessible bathroom on the first floor. The first floor has a comfortable couch you can sink into to watch a video or read a book as well as worktables, a photocopier, and hookups for laptops. The second floor also has worktables and laptop hookups. The basement, first and second floors are used for processing and storing the collections, as well as for research. The top floor has a caretaker’s apartment. We are working to digitize the collection so that many more people will have access to the wonders of this collection. The building itself will always be worth a visit, a living monument to what lesbian activism can accomplish.