Archival Legibility: Sustainability through Storytelling across Generations
“How we as members of local and global communities remember the past is wholly bound up with how we imagine what is possible in the future. In this light, archivists are not just memory activists, but visionaries whose work reconceives imagined worlds through space and time.” — Jarrett Drake
Last spring, I sat at a café across from the intern working for the Arizona Queer Archives (AQA) at that time. He wanted to meet to, among more, ask me what it was like to be an “older queer.” It was a time of transition for him and he had just had top surgery. He was transitioning from female to male — “not man, but boy,” he explained. Later he had invited me to attend his senior presentation where he acknowledged our café conversation as important for him to understand that he just might have “a future,” one that he might even look forward to. He spoke of the gratitude he felt to see and know lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) elders in the community and in the archives. Two years earlier, I collaborated with FARRistas to create a POP-UP Archive of the AQA. The POP-UP Archive facilitated performances of oral history excerpts from 1970’s lesbian feminists at mostly un-marked sites, which were meaningful to those very histories. A number of elder lesbian feminists attended the event and were moved to hear their stories — of a feminist bookstore, a collective living space for women, a feminists-in-the-media organization, and an anti-racist childcare center — performed by a new generation of feminists. Both of these intimate encounters among past, present, and future pose a queer alternative to the traditional concept of ‘archives’ and the circulatory model of social circulation as an “operational metaphor…in this case for rethinking how performances ebb, flow, travel, gain substance and integrity, acquire traction, and not.”
I write about these experiences as an entry point into the important role that LGBTQ-identified archives and their stories as well as lived and living histories can play across generations. Such archives provide evidence of lives having been (or being) lived while also imagining a future. I argue that long-term sustainability of community archives, then, is integral to such imaginings and makes urgent the need for new funding models that are aware and can incorporate the relational power of archival productions and their effects today and over time.
These anecdotes highlight the storytelling element that is generated by and generates community archives. I consider the words ‘generating’ and ‘generations’ as linking what community archives do in and out of the communities they are established to represent. I also consider the words for their productive implications particularly with regard to sustainable funding. What will it take for such archives to become sustainable? Although the traditional concept of archives delimits how archives can be imagined in both the short and long term, I look to the ways archives are generated by their own community expertise that inform their organizational structures while also recognizing that each community archives is differently situated in and across communities and their stakeholders.
When I founded the Arizona LGBTQ Storytelling Project in 2008 as Arizona’s first LGBTQ archives, I owned a multimedia production company and produced social justice documentary films along with videos for local non-profits. I was entrenched in the community as activist, artist, and media-maker. Informed by the principles of social justice media, I trained interested community members to use video production equipment so that they could collect their own oral histories; and I collected oral histories, edited and compressed them to be streamed in iTunes when video iPods were still the rage. I returned to graduate school in the spring of 2010 to learn how to develop archives. As part of my doctoral research, I founded the Arizona Queer Archives in 2011 and immediately migrated the Arizona LGBTQ Storytelling Project to be its cornerstone collection. I thereby incorporated storytelling as its programmatic focus. At this time, the AQA was given a space in the Institute for LGBT Studies at the University of Arizona. In addition to a small room to build the AQA’s physical collections, the Institute for LGBT Studies has financially supported the AQA’s growth with graduate assistant labor, off-site storage, and webhosting. As the archives were installed in this particular institutional space and yet committed to the LGBTQ communities I have been co-creating it with, I wrestled with the urgency to keep the archives situated in the hands of community by meaningfully establishing the AQA’s mission and collection policies through community forums and ongoing participation.
In my research, I have increasingly been thinking about ‘legibility’ and how the university/institution often recognizes archives differently than the community because of their distinct attention to community needs, desires, and participation. Whenever community archives are situated at the intersections of university/institution, there are degrees of vulnerability that should be considered and addressed. What does it take for a community archives to be ‘legible’? How, then, does ‘legibility’ play a role in ‘legitimacy’? Consider the role that community archives have played in non-dominant communities to legitimate lived and living histories that are often erased, obscured, and marginalized. These thoughts become part of your story.
Drawing on my decades as a filmmaker and producer of media for non-profits, I return to the Benoven Model for Sustainable Funding. This model employs a four-step plan that focuses on mission and community as intricately linked to the long-term sustainability of non-profit organizations. A part of this model has been a short fundraising video to tell the story of the non-profit through intimate interviews with people whom the organization serves. The video is screened at fundraising events to emotionally connect audiences to the mission of the organization in ways that move them to give as part of a multiple-year giving plan. I am thinking about how such a model might work for community archives. The communities who are a part of community archives are often non-dominant and may be situated in diverse class locations which requires re-thinking how to ignite long-term giving through relevant levels of giving and participation. Community archives, then, might consider what establishing endowments can do for their organizations in the long term. What changes to such a fundraising model would make it effective for community archives developed through and for economically disparate communities?
Thinking through this model with a focus on sustainability, community archives might ask: What stories do you tell about your archives, your collections, and your communities to garner interest? Does this interest turn into a donation? Why or why not? How might the communities participate in the telling of these stories? And to what ends? What partnerships can be built? How can community archives harness the power of the archives and what it does in and for non-dominant communities to build an endowment to ensure long-term sustainability?
As founder and director of the AQA, I am concerned about its long-term sustainability. I am faculty at the university and have limited time to spend in the archives. Without the time and labor to develop a succinct fundraising strategy, I feel stuck and rely on word of mouth with limited local foundation funding and individual donors. Interns, graduate assistants, and community volunteers help with drumming up fiscal support outside of the university. We have the short term covered but the long term remains uncertain. As archivists and those passionate for community archives, we are the ones to share the archives’ messages. We are the ones to generate interest and potential change. Storytelling is at the heart of our work.
What is your story?
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Royster, J.J. & Kirsch, G.E. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies, (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press), 2012.
Sheffield, R. “Community Archives,” Currents of Archival Thinking, 2nd edition, ed. H. MacNeil and T. Eastwood, (Libraries Unlimited), 2017: 351–376.
Shilton, K. & Srinivasan, R. “Participatory Appraisal and Arrangement for Multicultural Archival Collections,” Archivaria 63, 2007: 87–101.
Jamie A. Lee is the Founder and Director of the Arizona Queer Archives and Assistant Professor of Digital Culture, Information, and Society in the School of Information at the University of Arizona.
 Drake, J.M. “Archivists without Archives: A Labor Day Reflection. Medium. (https://medium.com/on-archivy/archivists-without-archives-a-labor-day-reflection-e120038848e), 2016.
 The Feminist Action Research in Rhetoric, FARR, is a coalition of rhetoric scholars called to take action at events of both regional and national significance to respond to social inequities.
 See the Southwest Feminist Reunite Group collection of oral history interviews at the AQA’s digital repository website: www.azqueerarchives.org. Also check out the forthcoming article on the POP-UP Archive and look for the POP-UP Toolkit at the end. Bentley, Elizabeth and Jamie A. Lee, “Performing the Archival Body: Inciting Queered Feminist (Dis)locational Rhetorics through Place-Based Pedagogies,” Peitho: Journal of the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, fall 2018.
 Royster, J.J. & Kirsch, G.E. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies, Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2012: 24