LGBT history will be on display throughout 2010 with the launch of the William Way LGBT Community Center’s quarterly archival exhibits, which allow the photos, writings and memorabilia to tell the story of the local and national LGBT community growth.
Locating, organizing and presenting all of those materials, however, is no easy feat and depends on the commitment of such volunteers as Bob Skiba, who’s served as the archivist in the center’s John J. Wilcox Jr. Library and Archives for about seven years.
At 6:30 p.m. March 11, Skiba will host “Out of the Closets,” a discussion about the people, places and events that furthered the LGBT-rights movement, both locally and nationally, and which serves as the companion narrative to the center’s current archival exhibit of historical LGBT activism, “Into the Streets!” on display until March 26 at the center, 1315 Spruce St.
Skiba served as the primary researcher for the exhibit and will next turn his attention to “Beyond Bayard,” the second installment of the archival exhibits that will launch next month, and which provides a retrospective look at the growth of Philadelphia’s LGBT people of color community.
The materials for both exhibits were extracted from the center’s archives, one of the largest LGBT historical collections in the nation.
The archives are home to about 30 special collections, each of which weaves another thread in the fabric of the LGBT community’s history. The largest collection tells the story of the center’s own past, with photos, brochures, board-meeting minutes, newsletters and other memorabilia documenting the 30-year history of the organization. Other sizable collections include organizational records from Giovanni’s Room, personal materials donated by LGBT pioneers Kay Lahusen and the late Barbara Gittings, as well as local activist Kiyoshi Kuromiya — whose contribution after his death consisted of 40 boxes of materials.
Although mainstream libraries have begun incorporating LGBT sections into their own collections in the past 20 years, Skiba noted that it’s integral that the LGBT community honors its own history.
“We need to make sure what’s important to us is preserved, especially for young people growing up and coming out,” he said. “They need to know what came before them. They should know how we got to where we are today, so they have some clue about what to do to get where they want to be. They need to be able to feel part of their community and know that that community has developed and changed over time and will continue to do so.”
Just as the community has seen continual change, the center’s Archives have also developed since their inception in 1976 — relocating several times as the center moved to different buildings in the city, and even spending time packed up in boxes during a period when the center operated without a permanent location.
Skiba and the half-dozen other volunteers who work alongside him are tasked with making sure all of the documents are labeled and organized, and Skiba is now focused on entering all of the material into a computer database, similar to a library catalog.
Researchers and students often visit the archives to collect information for scholarly works, but Skiba noted that they’re also open to members of the public who want to take a peek into the past.
While the archives’ oldest materials — men’s magazines from the 1940s — may be valuable, Skiba said the donations the center has acquired from LGBT community members themselves, some of which date to the 1950s, are just as significant.
“A lot of these old scrapbooks and photos and letters are just a fascinating and important part of our history,” he said. “Each of us is a part of this bigger LGBT community in our own unique way, and we should be documenting that. The direction we’re headed in now is to concentrate more and more on local things, Delaware Valley history. Everyone has every issue of The Advocate that’s come out, but not everyone will have these personal memories of LGBT Philadelphians, which each document the history of our area.”
Next month, Skiba will take that history out of the archives and into the streets, literally, with a historical walking tour of the Gayborhood, from 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. April 24.
Skiba, who operates his own tour company in the city, will take participants through Philadelphia’s LGBT history and past where some of the earliest LGBT bars and community organizations were located, and will wrap up the tour at the archives. The tour is $35 for center members and $50 for non-members.