How to Build an Archive(s)

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by Jamie A. Lee

I came to archives, community archives, and the practices of community archiving through my work as a documentary filmmaker and oral historian. As a queer activist and scholar with my video camera in hand, I approached the intimate stories people shared with me with respect and the responsibility it required to take care of the stories and trust given to me.

In 2008, I started Arizona’s first lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer archives via the Arizona LGBTQ Storytelling Project, which began with a couple of oral histories from elders in our local communities who were beginning to experience issues with their health. There was an urgency to get elders to tell of their experiences living as LGBTQ-identified before they died.

In one interview, Les Krambeal introduces his long-term partner of over 20 years and another man who helps to round out their non-normative relationship. He chuckles on camera and says, “If you saw our master bedroom, we have the biggest bed you’ve ever seen because it’s a bed for three.”[1] In another interview, a woman discusses how she feels living in the state of Arizona at a time when same-sex marriage was not yet legal.

These two interviews illustrate the distinct role LGBTQ archives can play in collecting and making accessible the multiplicity of identities, desires, and the diverse ways we make meaning and live our lives. As someone who studies respectability politics, I interrogated the dominant narratives around ‘coming out,’ ‘same-sex marriage,’ and more rights-based efforts that often centered dominant identities even within the LGBTQ communities. My focus at this time was to hold both histories as equally valid and worthy of entering into the archives. Because no two people have the same story, I appealed to archivists—professional and everyday—to pay careful attention to practices that might further marginalize folks in our own communities.

With seed funding from the Alliance Fund of Southern Arizona[2] and technological support from Pan Left Productions,[3] a now-defunct activist filmmaking collective, the oral history archives grew in ways that allowed me to fully engage the principles of social justice media. To me, that means putting the tools of media production in the hands of everyday people. It means giving autonomy to communities in producing their own archives and shaping the stories that constitute their histories.

TC Tolbert being interviewed for the Arizona Queer Archives in 2019.

To build capacity among community members, I regularly facilitated small public workshops on LGBTQ oral history productions. Participants learned hands-on digital video work—everything from setting up the tripod and camera to checking sound to conducting interviews. They learned to work both behind and in front of the cameras. I found that each workshop built new coalitions and trust within and across LGBTQ communities. Meanwhile, I honed my own storytelling craft as I learned so much about our local communities and what an LGBTQ archives might mean for the Ls, Gs, Bs, Ts, and Qs. Umbrella terms and sweeping universal standards for archiving would just never work for our unruly and lively communities.

These oral histories and the storytelling project became the central piece and programming framework for what is now the Arizona Queer Archives.[4] Since 2011, the Arizona Queer Archives has been the major site of my research—both as a doctoral student and now as faculty in the School of Information at the University of Arizona. It has continued to grow, change, and shift in its relationships across community and institutional contexts, but it is still a community-focused archives that centers stories, storytelling,[5] and engages the concept of queer—as a theory and a practice—to question how we collect, preserve, and make accessible our records and collection.

Not long ago, a friend asked me, “What would you put in your archival box?” I stood in the middle of my garage and looked at the Rubbermaid bins I’ve been carting around with me all my life–from Minnesota to Iowa to Arizona. What would I put in my archival box? What would represent me on my journey? What would represent me today? What are the stories I embody? The stories I must tell so that people understand me and my journey?

The author in 2nd grade

As I looked through my storage bins, I found records that illuminated who I was/am—tomboy, injured basketball star, androgynous writer and poet, football card collector, photographer, filmmaker, storyteller, and first-gen college student. I saw how my own identity (identities) changed from coming out as bi-sexual, then lesbian, and now queer identified. The archives that I build can attend to all of the changes and not hold me captive in just one identity marker.

We can create an archives[6] that is flexible and playful, a living and breathing story of our lives. To build our histories together, the archives requires the work of everyday experts to share their stories and shape the larger societal narratives so that there is space for our individual and collective complexities.

In 2013, I worked closely with Lavina Tomer and Deborah Dobson who were co-organizing the Southwest Feminists Reunite Group’s 40th Anniversary weekend in Tucson. They were interested in conducting oral history interviews with feminists and lesbian feminists who were returning to Tucson for this big event. Anastasia Freyermuth and I set up our digital video camera equipment in two adjacent rooms at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson and recorded group after group of storytellers who shared with us their time spent in Tucson connecting with other women and building community organizations and infrastructures that would support them and sustain them.

Two years later, I worked with graduate students from the UA Feminist Action Research in Rhetoric (FARR)—Anushka Peres, Elizabeth Bentley, Alejandra Ramírez—to organize a POP-UP Archives Event to bring those feminists’ stories to life.  We created a walking tour of the Fourth Avenue neighborhood district from Antigone Bookstore, a local feminist bookstore founded in 1973; to the Historic YWCA, where the Feminists in the Media met; to the 5th Avenue Women’s Collective that was instrumental for women becoming independent after leaning their family homes or husbands. The tour ended at the Artemis Childcare Center, where feminists had developed an anti-racist and anti-violent school.

Our Bodies Our Selves, 1974 Edition, Southwest Feminists Reunite Group’s Collection, Arizona Queer Archives

At each location, FARRistas and other participants performed selections of the oral history scripts in the places where these histories had taken place forty years earlier. The result was a “dislocation” of these 1970s histories through a space-time slippage, as the POP-UP participants differently embodied those original stories, re-mapped their routes through downtown Tucson, and provoked a new set of questions about archives.[7] What does it mean for the archives to return to the streets where their histories were so potent? What does it mean when archival records are freed from the archives? Could these records and collections exist and remain meaningful in all sorts of places and in many timescapes?

Communities and families often have their own archivists and historians who have been carefully collecting records about people’s lives for decades. Some of these personal collections get donated to local historical societies or institutional collections about the areas; others get passed on to the next generation of family. I recognize these everyday experts as rich resources and where theory emerges in their work. There is a lot to learn from our everyday experts who are doing this work to collect and preserve our family and community histories. In practicing reciprocity, the Arizona Queer Archives officially recognizes all community participants as experts. The archives embodies multiple expert knowledges and practices that make it the space for relational complexities, belonging, understanding, sharing, and resisting.

Performers Adela C. Licona, Anushka Peres, Ana Riebero, Alejandra Ramírez read oral history excerpts at a POP-UP Archives Event, April 2015. Photo by Renee Reynolds.

I think of folklore as the body (bodies) of stories attached to peoples, cultures, and places as well as the practices and productions of knowledge and meaning in our everyday lives. ‘Thinking like a folklorist’ means to me that the archives is a relationship. This relationship is less about the production of records and collections but more about how those records connect and contextualize how we know ourselves in our own communities.

In my recent book, Producing the Archival Body (Routledge, 2021), I tell stories of my hands-on work in and with communities to establish and grow the Arizona Queer Archives. I also explore more thoroughly this notion of the body and what it means in relationship to the archives. It’s a messy relationship for sure, but one that I interrogated playfully to think through the power of the archives to shape human subjectivities, human relationships, as well as our relationships to our own histories and imaginings for our futures. This complicated body is the starting point for critical awareness, understanding, and inquiry. This body is big, and yet it’s filled with nuanced minutiae that determines decisions, actions, reactions, and relations.

Acknowledging and paying attention to individual embodiment as well as our bodies in relation to others, we can more easily acknowledge that pluralistic understandings of archives requires the move from singular dominant histories toward multiple histories and ways of knowing. Bodies form the foundation of the multiplicities that I continue to explore in theory and practice. The stories in the archives help me do this work and help me stay connected to the many communities that I am a part of.

Jamie A. Lee (they/them) is Assistant Professor in the School of Information at the University of Arizona, and the author of Producing the Archival Body, (Routledge, 2021). Lee is an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Early Career Grantee conducting research on community-based archives and archival description practices and a Faculty Fellow of the Haury Program for Environment and Social Justice. Lee also directs the Arizona Queer Archives, the Digital Storytelling & Oral History Lab, and co-directs the Climate Alliance Mapping Project. For more on their research: www.thestorytellinglab.io


[1] Arizona Queer Archives, Arizona LGBTQ Storytelling Project Collection, Les Krambeal oral history interview conducted by Ryn with Jamie A. Lee in Tucson, Arizona, 10 April 2010.

[2] https://cfsaz.org/alliancefund/

[3] http://www.panleft.net/about/

[4] www.arizonaqueerarchives.com

[5] www.thestorytellinglab.io

[6] I use archives in the plural as a political move to acknowledge the labor that archivists put into the work to make records and collections ‘archival.’ The archival studies discipline continues to wrestle with terminology in ways to ensure that the hands and hearts of the archivists are no invisibilized in the work to build archives. Read more about the debates here: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/7bn4v1fk

[7] Elizabeth Bentley and Jamie A. Lee, “Performing the Archival Body: Inciting Queered Feminist (Dis)locational Rhetorics Through Place-Based Pedagogies.” Peitho Journal, 21, no. 1 (2018): 187. Jamie A. Lee, Producing the Archival Body, Routledge, 2021, 30.

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