Home of the LHA
About the Archives


History of the LHA
Principles of the Archives
Vision of the Future
A True Community Organization
Organizational Structure
Found Image; Schomberg Library; LHA Collection Using the Archives from a Distance
Activities of the Archives
Ira Jefries, c. 1942; LHA Collection Support the Archives


The Lesbian Herstory Archives of New York City, the largest and oldest Lesbian archive in the world, began in 1973 as an outgrowth of a Lesbian consciousness-raising  group at the Gay Academic Union. The founders were concerned about the failure of mainstream publishers, libraries, archives, and research institutions to value Lesbian culture. It became obvious that the only way to insure the preservation of Lesbian culture and history was to establish an independent archives governed by Lesbians.

In 1974, the planning began. In 1976 they became a working reality when the Lesbian Herstory Archives opened in the pantry of Joan Nestle's and Deborah Edel's Upper West Side apartment. They became the coordinators and began the collection with their personal papers and books. As word spread, other individuals and organizations began sending materials. Mabel Hampton, who died in 1989 at age 87, donated her extensive collection of 1950s lesbian paperbacks; women active in the Daughters of Bilitis gave their collection of organizational papers, which included over 1,000 letters and publications and the New York Chapter of the Committee to Free Sharon Kowalski donated their papers. The Archives began with a steadfast commitment to be a grassroots organization, to rely upon community members to give individually. It is one of the few grassroots organizations that has managed to remain this way.

Statement of Purpose 

The Lesbian Herstory Archives exist to gather and preserve records of Lesbian lives and activities so that future generations will have ready access to materials relevant to their lives. The process of gathering this material will also serve to uncover and collect our herstory denied to us previously by patriarchal historians in the interests of the culture which they serve. The existence of these Archives will enable us to analyze and reevaluate the Lesbian experience; we also anticipate that the existence of these archives will encourage lesbians to record their experiences in order to formulate our living Herstory.

We will collect and preserve any materials that are relevant to the lives and experiences of Lesbians: books, magazines, journals, news clippings (from establishment, Feminist or Lesbian media), bibliographies, photos, historical information, tapes, films, diaries, oral histories, poetry and prose, biographies, autobiographies, notices of events, posters, graphics, and other memorabilia.

In 1978, Judith Schwarz joined Joan Nestle and Deborah Edel as coordinators of the Archives. By then, the Archives was filling most of the apartment and a full-scale informational campaign was well underway. To help spread the word about the Archives, the coordinators developed a traveling slide show. They took it to homes, bars, churches, synagogues, anywhere they were asked to speak. The slide show presented materials that were in the Archives and illustrated the principles and intention of its existence. It also helped to bring the message to the community that the Archives was for every Lesbian---that no one would be excluded, that every Lesbian life could and should be represented. The show helped to build pride in individuals and communities and take away the stigma of formality and exclusivity from the concept of "archives."

Principles of the Archives 

Vision of the Future 

Now that the Archives has a new home, it is crucial that fundraising efforts do not stop. While we have achieved our long awaited goal of outright ownership of the building, there are all kinds of other responsibilities and planning to be accomplished, not to mention the day to day maintenance of the collection and the building and the production of future exhibits, slide shows and archives publications. Of course, the Archives coordinating committee also envisions continuing to expand services to our multifarious lesbian communities. Having the entire collection housed in one space has required a tremendous amount of work For years portions of it had been stored off-site, making it difficult to use. The added space, wheelchair accessibility and expanded volunteer hours made the Archives more accessible to more people, more of the time. As well, in addition to an excellent security system, a volunteer caretaker lives in an apartment in the house as a way of keeping the building and the collection secure. The Archives will continue to serve as a cultural center,  providing performance and exhibit space, and eventually, facilities for photography and film-making. More research accessibility, study groups. tours, and video viewing can all become possible. It will also be a place for every lesbian to visit, to feel at home, to just browse, or work on her own project. This permanent home will always be a testament to what the Lesbian community can achieve, and to the power of grassroots organizing. We will continue to broaden the involvement of volunteers and expand the collection to reflect our ever-changing lives as lesbians.

A True Community Organization 

The Archives has grown tremendously because the community has always been involved, always contributed material, energy and money, when asked. It has also thrived because of the unwavering commitment of its coordinators and volunteers. The ability to buy the building that now houses the Archives has come about in the same way, not with a big endowment but by thousands of relatively small contributions, by small house party fund raisers across the country, and by the tireless fundraising of its coordinators and volunteers. The Archives' new building is a home for all those whose personal and financial efforts helped make this dream into a reality, and for all those who will come after.


Today, the Archives houses over 20,000 volumes, 12,000 photographs, 300 special collections, 1,600 periodical titles, 1,300 organizational and subject files, thousands of feet of film and video footage, art and artifacts, musical records and tapes, posters and T-shirts, buttons and personal memorabilia. The range of material is astonishing-- from medical texts to steamy 1950s pulp novels to short-lived Lesbian publications, from rhinestone pasties worn by a lesbian stripper to team-autographed softball to a lambda-emblazoned hard hat. Also included are files on topics such as Butch/Fem, Lesbian Theater, and Lesbians in Africa Collections & Publications

How to use the Archives from a Distance 

Since the Lesbian Herstory Archives strives to serve the Lesbian Nation, and not just the Dykes of New York, it is important you understand how to use the Archives from a distance. We may be located in New York City, but we do in actuality provide services to Lesbians the world over.

In the last year before moving to our new building we responded to over 3,000 reference requests either by phone or letter. This is no small feat for an all volunteer organization. Of course, there isnothing like a visit to the Archives, and if you are doing any sort of lengthy or scholarly project that requires in-depth research you will have to make the trip to the Archives yourself. There are limits to what we are able to do. However, it is quite possible to use the Archives from a distance, providing you have a clear request and an understanding of how we are organized and what kind of access we have to the information.

The Archives is the kind of place that inspires fantasy. The sheer bulk of the many books, letters, photographs and  manuscripts that record and document the history of our people quite simply takes your breath away. The impact is especially great if you are finding it for the first time after many disappointing trips to other traditional libraries and archives in search of some shred of evidence of the women who came before us. And if you happen to be a librarian, which I am, the prospect of gaining any sort of bibliographic control over this terrific collection can drive you nuts.

Organizing, cataloging, classifying and making accessible all of  these spectacular resources is a mammoth undertaking. In the complex mind of your average librarian there exists a fantasy whereby every book, article, periodical and unpublished paper is all very neatly cataloged on a big friendly computer that you can talk to like the one on Star Trek and it will crank out a custom-made bibliography for you on demand. Unfortunately, this librarians' fantasy is not yet realized. We do, however, have several classification schemes at work in the Archives that allow you to find what you want.

We use simple schemes to organize our books, files, and special collections. We have thousands of subject files arranged alphabetically by subject-a collection that takes up seven five-drawer file cabinets. Organizational files are arranged alphabetically by the name of the organization; biographical files are arranged alphabetically by the first name of the lesbian; our many hundreds of newsletters are arranged alphabetically by the title of the publication; our collection of unpublished papers and manuscripts are arranged alphabetically by title. The book collection, although quite large, is arranged very broadly by subject. The only way of knowing if we have a book is to go stand at the shelf and look for it; we do not yet have an on-line card catalog that allows for title, subject or author access to this collection, although we are planning one for the future. Until then, if you write or call to see if we have a certain book or periodical, it means a volunteer will go and comb the shelves and files to look. We do have fairly  good access to the periodical collection, so identifying a specific issue of a title can be done with relative ease.

In order to use the Archives from a distance it is best if you have a specific request, such as a certain article in Amazon Quarterly on lesbian mothers that was published in a February or March issue in 1979, rather than a broad request, such as-"Do you have anything on lesbian mothers, if so could you please send it to me." (we have a file drawer full.) There are several excellent periodical indexes to the literature that should be available in your community that you  can use for your initial literature search. Clare .Potter's Lesbian Periodicals Index (Tallahassee: Naiad,1986) provides subject and author access to over 42 lesbian periodicals from 1947-1982.

Dolores Maggiore's Lesbianism: An Annotated Bibliography and Guide to the Literature,1976-1986 (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow,1988) is another excellent source for identifying specific citations. Keep in  mind that the strength of the Archive's collection is in the many obscure lesbian/feminist periodicals and books that were published  that no other library or archives bothered to keep. Chances are, we've got that illusive issue you've been looking for. Now, if you are looking for a specific article or two, we can photo copy them and send them to you. If, however, it is a book you are looking for, the best we can do is let you know if we have it or not, or possibly copy a few pages for you. If you have a broad topic you are trying to go find  anything on, such as lesbians in the military, we can search our files and let you know if we have subject  files on that topic and how much information is available if you visit.

If you are looking for information on a specific organization, we can let you know if we have files on it or not and if so, how many. We have a list of our subject files as well as a list of our organizational files. Also, our unpublished papers are logged into the computer and can be searched by key word or author. Our Special Collections are also in the computer. Special collections number around 250 or so and can range from a hefty-folder to 8 large boxes full of materials-diaries, letters, photographs, clippings, t-shirts you name it. These are the kind of  collections one just has to go through on her own; the actual contents of each collection are not in the computer, just the name of the person or organization, the dates the papers cover, the basic category of materials (letters, photos, clippings) and how many boxes there are in the collection.

Remember  that it does take a bit of time to process these requests, so give your self plenty of turnaround time. It often takes us 3-6 weeks at least to process a written request .

Lucinda R. Zoe

Activities of the Archives 

Browsing through the Archives is allowed and encouraged--no one has to have a particular agenda in order to explore.

Publication of a free newsletter that includes reports on current activities, bibliographic listings, and  reprints of archival material.

At Home With the Archives: Series of in-house events that focus on sharing the writing, history, ideas and political discussion/movements of lesbians.

Researchers working on a variety of lesbian topics have always been allowed access to the Archives. Coordinators also answer inquiries over the phone, via fax and regular mail.

Bibliographies on Lesbian subjects have been developed and are available to Archive users and researchers.

The LHA Slide Show continues to be presented to groups around the world.

A poster and postcard series commemorating Lesbian images has been created.

Reference and resource services are provided.

The Archives lends support to, and shares information with, developing regional archives.

How-tos on archiving practices are conducted for the Lesbian community A special exhibition, "Keepin' On"--Images of African American Lesbians and Queer Covers are available for showing.

The Archives is actively involved in the survival struggles of the Lesbian and Gay communities.

Organizational Structure 

The Archives was incorporated in 1980 as The Lesbian Herstory Educational Foundation, Inc., a not-for-profit foundation. In the past couple of years, the Archives has reorganized its internal structure. The three long-time coordinators have been joined by a group of volunteers to form a coordinating committee. Each coordinator has taken on a special area of responsibility, for both the long and short term. Other volunteers and interns continue. as they always have, to perform many of the vital tasks of keeping the Archives running. They help with filing, fund raising cataloguing, clipping newspapers and magazines, responding to research and reference questions (by phone and letter), processing special collections, giving  tours, acting as part of the speakers bureau, and in producing the newsletter. Any Archives Volunteer  may take on a special project when she is willing and able.

Copyright © 2007-1997 by LHEF, Inc.

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