Notes on the Curator's Queer Research Methods

What follows is a list of advice for future researchers of queer history, particularly those who are seeking to use an institutional archive to attempt to piece together a narrative. This list draws on my own experiences, as I found that many “normative” archival and academic research practices did not apply to the methods I ended up employing, and it also draws on insights from theorists and professionals in the fields of queer theory and archival theory. 

Commit to uplifting and highlighting the diversity of queer perspectives and experiences, from separatist to assimilationist, from closeted to openly out, from stories of triumph to stories of struggle.

In a guide on creating exhibits using Special Collections and Archives Libraries that I consulted during my work on this project, one of the pieces of advice that author Jessica Lacher-Feldman gives when it comes to curating and developing exhibits is to “solidify your idea and messages”, arguing that your end goal should be “to create a professional and coherent product” [1]. She goes on to write that “this is also the opportunity to focus the exhibit by crafting a statement or idea that gives clarity and definition to the exhibit… is there a specific message, a sentiment, an idea - something that comes directly from the exhibit itself that they should carry away?” [1].

Lacher-Feldman also argues that “developing an overall look for your exhibit is an extremely significant, though too often overlooked, part of the process” [1]. She stresses that aesthetic matters such as typeface, font, color, writing style, and layout need to be characterized by “continuity and logic,” writing “setting the appropriate mood can help you develop an attractive, cohesive exhibit” [1]. 

I certainly have an inherent tendency to agree with the underlying sentiment being expressed here: organization, flow, and messaging are all things that should remain clear and constant throughout any piece of work that is produced. However, the research and presentation of queer history necessarily complicates the prioritization of aesthetic and thematic cohesion. The materials I pulled for this exhibition came from all sorts of collections, sources, perspectives, and time periods. The UBGLAD calendar printed on bright pink neon paper from the 1990s had to fit alongside black and white photographs of student groups from the 1920s. No two subjects in my research experienced or expressed queerness in the same way. As Patrick Steorn (2012) wrote, ““[t]he term ‘queer’ was coined to destabilize homogeneous identity categories, so to insert it as a static label in a museum would be to work against its disruptive power” [2].

To tell queer history inherently means to tell a multiplicity of narratives. As the researcher and curator, I had no right to attempt to craft a linear, progressional narrative out of the materials I found. Do not search for one unified story of LGBTQ+ history, search instead for vast ranges of perspectives and experiences. In addition, do not present your findings as a complete history or as the official story, but merely a singular exploration of that vast, everchanging, and ephemeral history.

Reject assumptions of neutrality in collecting, describing, and researching alike.

A longstanding cornerstone of many academic fields and disciplines is ‘neutrality’; archivists fit into this broader professional trend by consistently professing neutrality in collecting, processing, and describing archival material. More often than not, however, what neutrality means in practice is upholding the status quo of broader society, which includes the prioritization of the perspectives of the most privileged members of society, and the reproduction of society’s prejudices. During a panel entitled “The Archivist and the New Left” at the Society of American Archivists’ annual conference, Howard Zinn (1970) remarked, “the scholar may swear to his neutrality on the job, but whether he be physicist, historian, or archivist, his work will tend, in this theory, to maintain the existing social order by perpetuating its values, by legitimizing its priorities, by justifying its wars, perpetuating its prejudices, contributing to its xenophobia, and apologizing for its class order” [3]. Librarian and Professor Lizbeth Zepeda (2018) applied this idea specifically to the perpetuation of cisnormativity and heteronormativity in archival work, writing, “traditionally, in theory, processing remains neutral and unbiased to allow for future research to interpret the collections. This stance on neutrality reinforces marginalization for those that are deemed ‘queer’ to society” [4]. Rejecting an automatic assumption of neutrality, and instead understanding the work of past collectors, processors, and researchers as often being imbued with societal prejudices and existing power dynamics, opens up the possibility of actively (re)interpreting research material and challenging existing understandings of this material. Subjecting existing collections to this type of critical examination opens up new possibilities for what we glean from our interactions with archival material, as we take note of and begin to question what is present in a collection and what is not, and what parts of a collection or a person’s life are described in the control file, finding aid, and resource description, and what parts are not. 

This assumption of ‘neutrality’ extends to historical researchers as well. We are taught to interpret and present the ‘facts of what happened’ objectively, and to maintain a professional distance from the topics we are researching. Collecting and documenting queer history, in a world that systemically seeks to deny queer existence, has been a method of survival for many. With this knowledge, how can we possibly take the academically neutral and distant stance? I’ll be transparent and admit that there were times I openly wept in the Reading Room, looking at a particular photograph or reading a particular account. Queer faculty, staff, and alumni from Union’s past paved the way for students like myself to get to experience the level of visibility and acceptance that I have, and to forge the welcoming community of friends, peers, and mentors that I have. I feel a sense of gratitude to the organizers of LGBTQ+ groups throughout Union’s history, and a sense of kinship with all those who have ever walked this campus and experienced the insidious nature of heteronormativity and cisnormativity, those whose names I have learned and those who I have not. This research is deeply personal to me, but I only see that as a strength.

Expand your definition of what an archive is. 

When we hear the word “archive,” we all picture the stereotypical, rare, long forgotten dusty manuscripts (an incorrect and unfortunate association, given that the role of the archivist is to ensure and facilitate access to these archival materials, but I digress). To many people, “archive” implies formality, it implies physicality, it implies institutionality, and most of all, it implies uniqueness.

Some of the most insightful sources that I found throughout my research at Special Collections and Archives were not, in fact, unique to Union College. The advertisements in the Concordiensis for Albany’s Gay Liberation Front were spread throughout the Capital Region. The pamphlets collected and disseminated by Twitty J. Styles and Karen Williams, many of them produced by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, were circulated widely throughout the United States. The books that the Gay Discussion Group donated to Schaffer Library in June of 1983 were among the most popular recently published LGBTQ+ themed texts, especially Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet (1981). The films that UBGLAD screened on campus during the month of October 1996 were all popular within 90s queer subculture, and some even achieved mainstream success: Strawberry and Chocolate (1993) received an Academy Award nomination and won accolades at both the Berlin and the Sundance film festivals. 

Professor Ann Cvetokovich, a scholar of feminist cultural studies, describes the often unique contents of queer archives in her book An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures (2003), writing, “the stock-in-trade of the gay and lesbian archive is ephemera, the term used by archivists and librarians to describe occasional publications and paper documents, material objects, and items that fall into the miscellaneous category when being cataloged…Publicly available materials that might not be found in libraries or other public institutions, such as pornographic books, short-run journals, and forms of mass culture that are objects of camp reception, are preserved in these archives” [5]. Mass-produced or popular media in an institutional archive is often seen as secondary in value to original holdings. However, Cvetokovich advances the argument that within many queer archives, the standards for new acquisitions are based far more on the emotional attachments that donors have to the objects that they donate than on the actual rarity of the item: “In insisting on the value of apparently marginal or ephemeral materials, the collectors of gay and lesbian archives propose that affects - associated with nostalgia, personal memory, fantasy, and trauma - make a document significant” [5]. I argue in particular that publicly available and popular media takes on a very significant role in many queer lives. Beyond just emotional attachment or affect, finding representation of oneself in publicly available or popular media has historically served as a means of survival. To illustrate this, I want to return to a quote from the June 1981 edition of the Union Views:

A sophomore said that she ‘had a really rough time’ last year and that she felt ‘very alone.’ Consequently, she contacted off-campus organizations such as the National Gay Task Force and sought support in other places. She said that she would have had a much easier time of it had there been some type of support on campus [6].

For this student, turning to publicly available information was a means of navigating the throes of an isolating, heteronormative campus culture which offered no resources to LGBTQ+ students. The advertisements for Albany’s Gay Liberation Front, the HIV/AIDS educational pamphlets, the books donated to Schaffer Library by the Gay Discussion Group, and the films screened on campus by UBGLAD are all the ultimate embodiments of resilience.

In addition to this, as many insights as Union’s formal, physical, and institutional archive did give to me, this work would not have been possible without the use of complementary sources, specifically Internet-based work. An expansive definition of “archives” is of the utmost importance, especially when the perspectives of members of marginalized groups may be left out of the institutional records.

Researching local history and geography in order to supplement my understanding of the material I found within Union’s archives also proved vital. The Concordiensis article in which the Gay Discussion Group advertised a trip to Central Avenue in Albany wouldn’t have had any meaning to me if I hadn’t researched locally-based LGBTQ+ history while researching Union’s LGBTQ+ History, learning that the Central Arms (now called Waterworks Pub) has been a safe haven for the queer community of the capital region since the 1970s. You cannot contextualize any institution’s queer history without placing it within a broader time and place. This holds especially true when it comes to a place like Union College, as many LGBTQ+ students from the 1970s and 1980s lamented that there were no resources for them to turn to on campus. 

Keyword Searches often do not yield results; research far (and wide) beyond your intended scope. 

 I find the subversive power of entering an institution’s archive in order to research topics which that institution, and others like it, worked to systematically bury absolutely irresistible. The information is there; it has always been there. There is queer history in all institutional archives, it often just has yet to be recognized as queer. To put in the work to uncover these materials affirms loudly that throughout history, queer people have occupied all types of spaces, taken up all kinds of work, created spaces for themselves within heteronormative and cisnormative strongholds. As exhilarating as this all sounds (and very much is), what it means for a researcher is that you will likely not be able to employ simple, topical keyword searches in archival databases. Instead, you will end up finding information in collections that you never would have thought to look in, if not for the gradual accumulation of context clues. You may follow threads that go nowhere, read through boxes and folders that, no matter how interesting their contents may be, do not get you any closer to finding out information on your desired topic. My advice is to begin painting with as broad of a brush as you need: looking at generalized records like enrollment records, disciplinary records, academic department files and meeting minutes, or student group picture files. You must be willing to follow any shred of a lead you come across; no stone is too small to leave unturned. 

To illustrate this point - on one of my very first days working at Special Collections, when a Professor who was visiting the Department learned about my research topic, he insinuated that he’d always had a hunch that a certain figure from Union’s past was LGBTQ+. I was certainly intrigued by this possibility. At my suggestion, a coworker and I ended up searching through this person’s papers on different occasions, but there was ultimately no personal or biographical information housed in the collection at all, and so my attention quickly moved to other collections. For a moment, I started to feel a little unprofessional for having let a feeling or a curiosity guide my research, but the more I thought about it, I realized that even though this specific instance turned up nothing, I had subconsciously understood the importance of unsubstantiated rumors, gossip, feelings, and curiosities when it comes to LGBTQ+ history. Whereas such a research practice won’t be considered a “Best Practice” by any official standard, it was seriously applicable while researching queer history, which has existed for a very long time in whispers and in euphemisms (“his closest friend”), or has even gone unspoken. 

Look for definitive signs that you are missing something, and make these limitations clear when presenting your research to others. 

It would be ambitious beyond my daring, I thought, looking about the shelves for books that were not there, to suggest to the students of those famous colleges that they should rewrite history, though I own that it often seems a little queer as it is, unreal, lop-sided; but why should they not add a supplement to history, calling it, of course, by some inconspicuous name so that women might figure there without impropriety? [7].

Sometimes you have to create your own history. The Watermelon Woman is fiction [8].

If you are using an institutional repository to uncover LGBTQ+ history, you must approach your work under the assumption that the materials which have been preserved will tell an incomplete story. While this can ultimately be said of any materials from any archive, of course, it holds especially true in the context of queer history, which by necessity has often been composed of covert and underground forms of communication and organization. Recognizing the limitations of your work as archival researcher, instead of purporting that you’ve uncovered the ‘whole story,’ is vital when presenting your results to others, but this isn’t a caveat that is often given. The worry is that you won’t come across as a true expert if you admit to gaps in your knowledge or understanding. While I understand the feeling, honesty about pieces of the story that did not come across during your research conveys earnestness and sincerity to your audience, and it also gives future researchers a clear picture of existing research and of potential future directions. 

Going into research with the understanding that there will be so much missing from your findings can be a frustrating prospect, to be sure. It is important to consider the fact that people communicated via underground means for their wellbeing or even for their safety. We would do well to respect the fact that communication which was not publicly available should be kept that way, except at the invitation of the authors themselves. 

However, there are still methods you can employ to figure out concretely where gaps exist within the archival record without necessarily uncovering what exactly fits into those gaps. As a researcher, you must be cognizant of sure signs within the official archive that communication or organization that has gone undocumented occurred. I had one of these moments when I was researching the Gay Discussion Group. The first advertisement for the GDG appears in the Concordiensis in May of 1981, but the piece in the Union Views which discusses the GDG’s very first meeting states that the first meeting was held in the month of April. Official campus literature does not show how the GDG got the word out about their group prior to that first meeting. By reading each of these documents carefully, I learned definitively that the GDG had means of advertising that eluded official campus literature, whereas prior to this discovery I could only presume so. Without ever seeing for myself the GDG’s earliest forms of communication, I was able to confirm its existence. Becoming well versed in close reading, as well as making cross-comparisons between different texts or sources, allows you to get a sense of what it is that is missing, even when you cannot (or should not) actually uncover those materials.

The Case for Anonymity


Methods of determining authorship of a text or resource have applications in the literary, historical, and archival fields, among others. A myriad of tactics have arisen, from computational statistics to forensics to stylometry, to either attribute or dispute authorship of anonymous, pseudonymous,  or otherwise contested documents. Throughout my research at Special Collections and Archives, especially when it came to Concordiensis publications and other student-run publications, a lot of discussions of LGBTQ+ centric topics that occurred at Union from the 1970s to the 1990s were published either anonymously, pseudonymously (“Name withheld for obvious reasons” in 1979), or mononymously (“Chip” and “Dana” in the early 1980s).


The academic researcher tendency is to use all of the tools at one’s disposal to determine authorship, because attaching a definitive name to a source is understood as boosting its credibility and validity, and there’s a certain degree of exhilaration and prestige offered to the scholar who makes such a determination. However, if we consider the unique context of underground queer history and the violence of being outed versus the freedom of coming out on one’s own terms, to try and decipher a name or identity out of any of the anonymous publications is, quite frankly, a violation. In addition to this, the fact that so many Concordiensis publications on LGBTQ+ issues from the 1970s to the 1990s were left anonymous reveals a lot about campus culture and climate, making this invaluable information to be aware of. This is my call to respect and to value anonymous authorship. 


Understand Queer Time and Temporality


During my research at Special Collections and Archives, I looked through more ReUnion booklets than I could keep count of. In celebration of “milestone” years like the fifth, tenth, fifteenth, and twenty fifth anniversaries of graduations, Union allows alumni to send in blurbs detailing their lives post-graduation that are shared with the rest of their class via a ReUnion booklet. A fairly homogenous story arose from the vast majority of blurbs sent in by alumni who graduated during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. They married the (opposite sex, though that goes without saying) partners that they had started dating while in college, moved to the suburbs, and had 2.5 kids. 


In 2008, David L. Fox of Chicago, Class of 1983, submitted a blurb for his class’s 25th ReUnion booklet. A digitization of his page from the booklet is provided in the exhibition section “Box 2575,” but I would like to illuminate quotes from his blurb here as well: 


It has been a full and fast moving 25 years to say the least. Most importantly, I met my life partner (Mark) 16 years ago, and we have been navigating growing old together ever since.

I certainly look back at my Union years with fond memories…My only regret is that I wasn’t ready to be an out and proud gay man during my 4 years at Union. Alas, growing older and hopefully a bit wiser has certainly eliminated that issue!! [9].

Fox’s words illuminate the frequent reality that queer people may operate on non-normative timetables and may not engage with normative societal institutions. Queer scholar Jack Halberstam explains this idea in his book In a Queer Time and Place (2005). Halberstam argues that “queer uses of time and space develop, at least in part, in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction” [10]. He claims that in many queer people’s lives, queerness can be thought of as more than merely a sexual identity, but a means of living that is “an outcome of strange temporalities, imaginative life schedules, and eccentric economic practices” [10]. 

Generally, some of the most useful archival records for reconstructing the past are legal documents - marriage certificates, birth certificates, last wills and testaments. Queer people have historically been less likely than straight people to engage in the institutions of marriage and childrearing, some because they were systemically barred from them, and others because they willfully eschewed such strongholds of normativity. This may mean that the communities they do form, such as long term partnerships as opposed to legal marriages, are often more difficult to trace institutionally. Additionally, changes in preferred name, gender presentation, and gender identity across time may or may not be reflected in legal documents, and therefore institutional records. I do not point this out to imply that it is a bad thing. Halberstam stresses that this lack of conformity to normative institutions is a freeing prospect for many, writing “queer subcultures produce alternative temporalities by allowing participants to believe that their futures can be imagined according to logics that lie outside of those paradigmatic markers of life experience—namely, birth, marriage, reproduction, and death” [10]. I point this out because in our current cultural moment, it is becoming less true than ever before. More and more queer people get married, move to the suburbs, and have 2.5 kids, more and more trans people seek legal name and gender marker changes. I hope to remind people who are researching queer lives in historical eras that differ from our own that such legal, institutional visibility has long been either denied to, or rejected by, queer people. When it comes to researching queer histories, we need to think outside of the constraint of using legal records as the best window into the past - records often dismissed as less “concrete,” like oral histories, ephemera, and even hearsay all take on particular importance. Looking at records produced by someone across an expanse of time is also absolutely vital, whenever possible - David L. Fox is inevitably one of many who was closeted, possibly even to oneself, while they were in college.

Metadata and Description Best Practices as Issued by Formal Organizations May Not Be Attune to All of the Nuances of Sexuality and Gender Identity. 


By its very definition, queerness defies simple categorization. The library and archival professions thrive upon proper categorization, however, because it is this act which makes materials searchable and accessible to researchers who are seeking information on a particular topic. Librarian Alana Kumbier (2009) writes about the tension between what she calls “the unruly abundance of queer keywords” and the need for standardized methods of categorization in libraries and archives, which may erase the particular nuances of various queer identities, and also can never possibly keep up in real time with perpetual changes in discourse among members of the queer community surrounding identity and labeling. Kumbier argues, “Contemporary Library of Congress subject headings (used to describe individual books and entire collections of papers in conventional archives) can account for some of these identifications, but they can’t account for all of them in their particularity, their inventiveness, their impermanence, and their ambiguity” [11]. 


When I found a document which I learned through complementary Internet research contained a student’s deadname, which they had been going by in college, I didn’t have an official resource published by the Society of American Archivists or the Library of Congress to turn to to figure out what the best practice was. I sought out alternative resources, ultimately consulting the “Metadata Best Practices for Trans and Gender Diverse Resources” document from the Trans Metadata Collective (TMDC) [12]. The document stresses the fact that there is no single, uniform approach to cataloging and categorizing materials relating to trans and gender diverse individuals, but the authors advocate generally for relying on the self-identification and self-description of these individuals wherever possible, the pursuance of the input of a variety of trans or gender diverse community members, with fair and transparent compensation provided, as well as the perpetual reexamination of past description and the application of retroactive critical and reparative description to stay attune to contemporary cultural understandings of trans and gender diverse identities. Thinking beyond what is simply required or recommended of you by the SAA or LoC, choosing to dedicate time to forge and actively implement sets of practices that are uniquely attune to the topics of sexuality and gender identity, is really important if you are truly passionate about this type of work. Create your own standards when they do not exist.


Provide specific content warnings when subjects may be potentially distressing


Many Special Collections and Archives Departments have very generalized statements on their homepages regarding harmful language, Union College included [13]. I believe that it is the duty of information professionals, including librarians, archivists, and historians, to provide content warnings that are as specific as possible, giving readers an indication of what exactly they may find derogatory or distressing about the material. This includes moving beyond the ‘neutral stance’ of presenting a source objectively, instead warning readers when a source is homophobic, transphobic, or otherwise bigoted. The “Metadata Best Practices for Trans and Gender Diverse Resources” document advocates for this as well, urging information professionals to “be explicit about transphobia in collections, items, and metadata” and “identify both perpetrators and victims, including the usage of active voice and subject headings to ‘embed responsibility’” [12]. I would also argue that because queer history does not exist in a vacuum, and intersectional solidarity is vital to all marginalized communities, it is also of vital importance to provide content warnings and employ reparative transcriptioning and descriptioning when it comes to harmful language relating to other marginalized groups - including people of color and people with disabilities. I dedicated careful consideration to making the content warnings that I provided throughout my exhibition as descriptive and specific as possible, but I also stress that if visitors to my exhibition have concerns or further insight that I failed to consider, I welcome and implore them to reach out to me so I can improve visitor experience. 


Ensure that exhibitions, whether physical or digital, are accessible to people with disabilities, because intersectional solidarity is absolutely vital to all marginalized communities


Physical exhibitions should be not only accessible, but accommodating and welcoming to people with physical disabilities. User experience of digital exhibitions can be optimized through the inclusion of transcriptions of images or documents that contain text, and the inclusion of the full link to an external source, rather than embedding the link in a piece of text, so that they can be understood by screen readers. I dedicated time to attempting to optimize the usability and accessibility of my site, but once again, I stress that if visitors have further suggestions or improvements, I welcome them with open arms. 



Gabriella Baratier

Class of 2025

Student Curator and Inaugural Ruth Anne Evans Research Fellow

[1] Jessica Lacher-Feldman, 2013, Exhibits in Archives and Special Collections Libraries, published by the Society of American Archivists. [Quotes retrieved from pages 19, 23, and 24].

[2] Steorn, Patrick, 2012. “Curating Queer Heritage: Queer Knowledge and Museum
Practice.” Curator: The Museum Journal. Vol. 55 (No. 3): 355-65. [Quote retrieved from page 359]. 

[3] Zinn, Howard, first published 1970, republished 1977. “Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest.” Midwest Archives Conference/Archival Issues.

[4] Zepada, Lizbeth, 2018. “Queering the Archive: Transforming the Archival Process.” disClosure: A Journal of Social Theory. Vol. 27 (Article 17).,ignoring%20histories%20of%20marginalized%20communities. [Quote retrieved from page 2].

[5] Cvetkovich, Ann, 2003. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures, published by Duke University Press. [Quote retrieved from pages 243-244].

[6] “Being Gay at Union College,” June 1, 1981. Published by the Union Views. Vol. 2 (Issue 6). Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Schaffer Library, Union College.

[7] Woolf, Virginia, 1929. A Room of One’s Own, published by Hogarth Press. [Quote retrieved from pages 32-33]. Woolf is discussing the lack of recorded histories of average Elizabethan women, but the ideas expressed in the passage relate to the sometimes frustrating attempt to research the poorly recorded histories of members of many marginalized groups. Her words rang true to me as I pored over Union College archives in search of queer narratives and perspectives. 

[8] Dunye, Cheryl, director, 1996. The Watermelon Woman. Performances by Cheryl Dunye and Guinevere Turner. First Run Features, 1996. This quote is retrieved from the end card that appears in the final moments of the film, revealing that the “documentary film” of the prior hour and twenty minutes has been entirely fictional, a call on Dunye’s part urging Black lesbians to create the media representation that they want to see. 

[9] “Union College, 25th ReUnion Directory, Class of 1983,” 2008. Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Schaffer Library, Union College.

[10] Halberstam, Jack, 2005. In a Queer Time and Place, published by New York University Press. [Quotes retrieved from Pages 1 and 2]. 

[11] Kumbier, Alana, 2014. Ephemeral Material: Queering the Archive, published by Litwin Books. [Quote retrieved from Page 6].

[12] Trans Metadata Collective, 2022. “Metadata Best Practices for Trans and Gender Diverse Resources.”

[13] Union College Special Collections and Archives, “Harmful Language Statement.”

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