Archival Reflections: Can You See Yourself? Experiences in LGBTQ+ and BIPOC Representation in the Archives, Livestreaming April 20, 6:00 P.M. (CDT)

April 11, 2022 By Submitted by Eric Ely, Friends of UW-Madison Library board member and PhD candidate, Library and Information Studies, UW-Madison Information School

Have you ever wondered whether marginalized communities are included in the archives? Who decides what history is protected and what is doomed to be forgotten? How can we ensure that an inclusive record is preserved for future generations? Who has the power to influence our community’s future archival reflection?

The Friends of UW-Madison Libraries are pleased to host the upcoming virtual event to address these questions in a panel discussion moderated by longtime community activist Scott Seyforth. Panelists include Jenny Kalvaitis, Kristen Whitson, and nipinet landsem, each of whom is uniquely qualified to take part in this discussion.

Kalvaitis, with a master’s degree in Public History from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, has a decade-plus experience working in museum and informal education. Whitson, an archivist by training, holds a master’s degree in Library and Information Studies from UW-Madison. She has worked extensively in digital archive projects, with a particular focus on community, indigenous, and LGBTQ+ archives. They co-authored a book last year titled We Will Always Be Here: A Guide to Exploring and Understanding the History of LGBTQ+ Activism in Wisconsin (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2021). The authors utilize individual examples from across various intersecting identities that have contributed to strengthening and empowering the movement within in the state. Rounding out the panel is artist nipinet landsem, who identifies as two-spirit, nonbinary, anishinaabe and mixed European-descent (Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa and Red River Metis). nipinet designed the traveling exhibit, which will circulate to schools, museums, and other cultural institutions throughout Wisconsin, to accompany Kalvaitis and Whitson’s book. The artwork used to promote this event demonstrates nipinet’s creative skill.

In advance of the upcoming event, we connected with our panelists as they conversed about the significance of archives and local LGBTQ+ activism. We learned that their work has benefited from some rich resources and strong shoulders on which to stand.

The late Richard Wagner, community activist for LGBTQ+ rights

A discussion of Wisconsin LGBTQ+ activism would be incomplete without including the work of the late Richard Wagner, a historian, activist, gay-rights leader, and longtime Friend of the UW-Madison Libraries. In writing their book, Wagner was a source of inspiration, as Whitson indicated, “In a community where we don’t have many queer elders, Dick Wagner filled that role with grace, kindness, constant inclusivity, and humility. . . . Dick was so down to earth and delighted to share anything he could: his experience and wisdom, his home, his delicious baked goods.” Wagner’s time, energy, and dedication clearly had an impact on an intimate, personal level, but his professional contributions also influenced Kalvaitis and Whitson’s book. “It goes without saying that Wagner’s first two volumes on Wisconsin’s LGBTQ+ history paved the way for the third book in the series, We Will Always Be Here. The high standards of his historical research, the determination to treat Wisconsin’s LGBTQ+ figures with the respect they deserve, the way he helped other LGBTQ+ scholars into the field, and his constant accessibility: these traits have continued to influence our work very profoundly.”

In documenting past activism, Kalvaitis and Whitson relied on personal experience and on the source material available in the archives and various collections within UW-Madison libraries. Archival and institutional knowledge may serve as a barrier to access. Additionally, whose stories are documented and what records are kept, and the factors that play into these decisions, are also professional challenges. Despite these potential barriers, Whitson was adamant in discussing the significance of archives for any and everyone interested. “UW-Madison Archives (in Steenbock Library) houses the Madison LGBT+ Archive, a community and university partnership that makes available nearly 200 collections of Dane County LGBTQ+ materials.” And information isn’t confined to the archives, as Whitson points out.

“UW Madison’s Special Collections (in Memorial Library) also houses several LGBTQ+-related materials. People may not know that these materials are open to the public for no fee, no special registration! It’s not just researchers who get to see these incredible historical collections.”

Kristen Whitson
Author Jenny Kalvaitis

Having these collections open to the public offers anyone interested the opportunity to continue their pursuit of knowledge and understanding. The availability of resources and information, and knowledge and understanding, can lead to surprises and excitement. You do not need to write a book to have new information surprise or excite you. Kalavaits described the support, excitement, and anticipation people had for her book. “People are often shocked that Wisconsin was a leader in LGBTQ+ rights, including passing the very first non-discrimination bill here! Not on the coasts, but right here!” landsem mentioned being surprised to see the amount of queer history that was documented in the archives, “I didn’t know people were keeping track of that, and it was really cool to get to see it.”

While everyone, young and old, can learn from We Will Always Be Here, one of the book’s aims is to inspire and embolden young people to make positive change in the world. When asked about what they wanted young people to take away from the book, Kalavaits said her primary hope was that teens can see themselves in the book. With this hope in mind, she expanded, “We hope they can learn the history of their communities and to recognize the work of generations of Wisconsinites that they are now a part of. Our youth today are carrying on a long effort to make a better life for themselves and others.” landsem shares a similar hope for her art and exhibit.

“I’m hoping that my art can alleviate some of the loneliness that so many queer teens experience and open the door to a feeling of belonging with the knowledge that they are part of a wider community, a wider history, and that they and others like them have a future.”

nipinet landsem, artist

Please join us for the livestream event, Archival Reflections: Can You See Yourself?

Wednesday, April 20, at 6:00 pm CDT. No advanced registration is required.