Archival Innovators: Julia Rosenzweig, Minda Matz, and Nora Waters and the Lesbian Elders Oral Herstory Project

This is the latest post in our series Archival Innovators, which aims to raise awareness of individuals, institutions, and collaborations that are helping to boldly chart the future of the archives profession and set new precedents for the role of archivists in society. In this installment, COPA member Angie Piccolo interviews Julia Rosenzweig, Minda Matz and Nora Waters about their work on the Lesbian Elders Oral Herstory Project (LEOHP), a project of the the Lesbian Herstory Archives.

Photo collage of participants of the Lesbian Elders Oral Herstory Project the graphic logo in the middle, credit Julia Rosenzweig

AP: Please describe the Lesbian Elders Oral Herstory Project. 

Julia, Minda and Nora: The Lesbian Elders Oral Herstory Project is a project of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, a repository committed to collecting and sharing Lesbian stories. Through instructional workshops and interview guides, LEOHP facilitates intergenerational conversations that illuminate the experiences of the interviewees—their joys, challenges, and daily lives—resulting in vibrant oral history interviews. We hope that these Lesbian Elder Oral Herstories will offer experiential insight into the history of Lesbian culture and activism; complementing LHA’s already rich collection. For the purposes of our project Elders includes those 60 and up and, in addition to their life histories, we ask our interviewees to share their experiences or connection with the Lesbian Herstory Archives. This connection to LHA is the unifying theme of the Project, and could mean that they have material in the collection, have visited the space, have volunteered at LHA, they are a part of the herstory, or have used LHA materials in research, art, or writing. 

The Project launched in January 2021 and is supported by a Mellon Foundation Community Archives Grant. As of the end of March 2022 we have had around 100 folks join in conversation with our Informational Sessions and there have been 25 interviews recorded so far. 

AP: Where did the Lesbian Herstory Archives get the idea and what inspired them? 

Julia, Minda and Nora: The Lesbian Herstory Archives was founded in the early 1970’s with the mission of preserving the records and activities of lesbian lives, and the goal of providing community access. Since its inception the Archives has been supported by a vibrant community of volunteers. With the support of donations the Archives was able to open its current home in a Brooklyn brownstone in 1994. 

During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in June 2020, the doors to the brownstone were closed to volunteers and visitors. The idea of an oral history project that could continue the Archives’ mission of collecting the experiences of lesbians while weathering the pandemic—especially the stories of our Elders, who were and continue to be at risk—was a driving force. With the support of the Mellon Grant we were able to focus the concept and goals of the project beyond the tangible outcomes (an oral history interview and transcript) to what we were seeking; which was to replicate the intangible outcomes that LHA supports: community, connections, and knowledge sharing. Through facilitating informational sessions that bring together both prospective volunteer interviewees and interviewers, we create the space to foster these intangible outcomes right at the start of the interview process. 

AP: What challenges or obstacles has your team faced putting this project together? 

Julia, Minda and Nora: The LEOHP was originally conceived as facilitating both remote and, eventually, in-person interviews. We have pivoted to fully remote due to the ongoing nature of the COVID pandemic. However, this has been a positive as it has allowed us to expand beyond traditional geographic limitations when scheduling interviews. We have had interviewers and interviewees connect and share stories from Mexico, Canada, the UK, and across the United States! 

Thanks to a large number of enthusiastic volunteers we do currently have more interviewers than interviewees signed up, which limits participation and we are still seeking more Lesbian Elders to join the Project. 

AP: A few of the interviews have been posted on the website. Can you describe what the initial reaction has been so far from both the public and those involved in the project? 

Julia, Minda and Nora: The initial reaction from the volunteers has been positive! We are honored to be providing the space for Elders to share their herstories, and to be facilitating the intergenerational relationships that have been formed during the interview process. 

Both interviewers and interviewees have expressed gratitude at the opportunity to share their stories and contribute to the collective memory of Lesbians. These interviews can become quite intimate, and the emotional labor required to share these stories have been expressed as both cathartic and taxing. We are thankful for the openness, time, and emotional energy that this requires. It is an aspect that we consider of great importance, and is the genesis of our ethos of an on-going consent approach to the interviews, as well as the participatory transcript reviews. 

Despite our public-facing website showcasing the interviews, we have not yet had any direct feedback from the public. 

Photograph of the front door of the Lesbian Herstory Archives’ brownstone, credit Minda Matz

We are implementing a strategy to promote awareness and more wide-spread dissemination of the interviews. We plan to hold a Community Listening event at the close of the project (the end of 2022). Depending on the mandates and health advisories, we would love to host a hybrid in-person/remote event at the Archives. This event would neatly close out the project by continuing our ethos of encouraging intergenerational dialogue and fostering community, as well as to celebrate the voices that have generously dedicated their time and Herstories to this project. 

AP: Are there any plans to continue the project? 

Julia, Minda and Nora: As of now the interview portion of the project is currently scheduled to wind down at the end of the two year grant period in 2022, but we are hopeful that the grant will be extended so that more voices can be included. Any interviews that are collected will become a permanent part of the LHA collection allowing the Project to live on. In addition to the interviews available on the website there will be a viewing/listening station at the Archives where visitors can immerse themselves in the interviews while being surrounded by the books, ephemera, images, and voices of those that have come before.

Thank You Note, linocut print- artist Nora Waters

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