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On the tree lined streets of New York’s Park Slope neighborhood, one Brownstone is home to more than just a family.  It’s the Lesbian Herstory Archives, a mixture of library, museum, and family album, and it works under the mission to preserve the record of Lesbian life.  On the outside, it’s hard to distinguish from the other houses of the neighborhood, but on the inside, the Archives boasts the largest collection of materials by and about Lesbianism in the world.  The Archives were founded in the 1970’s, growing from the hard work of volunteers into the beloved foundation that it is today.  We talked with Deborah Edel, one of the founding members of the Archives, and learned more about the non-profit’s unique journey and profound success.

Fostering Longevity

The Archives, like any other grassroots organization, was vulnerable when it first began.  Non-profit groups had a pattern of emerging on grant money and dying out in a few years, but for the Archives to succeed, people needed to feel comfortable donating their materials to the collection.  Building trust for the first ten years of the Archives’ existence, Deb and other members kept the Archives alive with their own donations, proving to the community that they would not disappear like so many others.

The plan worked, and as the Archives gained the trust of others, they received more and more donations.  Even still, the Archives maintained the value to never live beyond their means.  The group used money sparingly and stayed out of debt, saving costs by housing the collection in a member’s apartment until enough money was saved to purchase a permanent home.  Early members stayed involved long term, working with new volunteers to maintain original values and share historical wisdom.  The Archives now boasts volunteers in their eighties, in their teens, and in every decade in between.

The Strengths of the Archives

The Archives were established as a non-hierarchical organization, a structure that has made it easy for the group to uphold their original values.  Many of the founders worked for other NGOs before joining the Archives, bringing their backgrounds from the civil rights movement and anti McCarthy work.  These members were able to share knowledge openly within the equal leadership of the group, and policies were always guided by the original mission rather than an individual’s beliefs.  

In order to maintain the equal dynamics of the Archives, none of the members have ever received salaries.  Having salaried staff, Deborah noted, can lead to individuals having more direct control of day to day activities.  Staying away from University connections and traditional library connections were other ways in which the Archives maintained their independence.  The group was free to follow their own vision, and eventually gained non profit status in the 1980’s.  This brought an increase in donations and eventually allowed for the purchase of a permanent location.

Signs of their Success

The Archives’ created a space that was not only engaging and homey, but grew to provide hundreds of annual tours, and attracted visitors from all around the world.  Opening the Brownstone location over thirty years ago was not the crowning moment for Deborah’s work with the Archives, though.  She shared that the most exciting moment for her was realizing that a younger generation was interested in staying involved and carrying on the Archives.  That was crucial, she felt, as she did not believe the Archives would have a future if younger people did not see the meaning of the work being done to ensure visibility of the Lesbian community.

Community Engagement

Visitors have always been welcome to read the Archive’s collections and use the space for research, even when the materials were held in an apartment.  In the 70’s and 80’s, many visitors had never been in a lesbian space before.  The Archives acted as a place to familiarize visitors with the Lesbian community and show what Lesbian life was like.  Using the Archives for research, some found the collective as a critical tool in preparing for court proceedings, while others used the collections to gather background information for creative work.  To this day, people come to the Archives to learn about their history and gain confidence in their identity as Lesbians.  In the age of the internet, background information on Lesbianism has become readily available, but Deborah recalled early visitors sometimes bringing family to the Archives to introduce their loved ones to Lesbian history and alleviate anxieties surrounding coming out.

The Joy of the Journey

Deborah noted that the Archives began at a time when Universities rarely even recognized Women’s studies, let alone Lesbian studies.  Born in a time of emerging Lesbian book stores and materials, the Archives fought to make sure the strides of visibility would not be erased.  Even when the world around them did not recognize the importance in their work, Deborah and the other founders persevered until cultural history was accepted as a meaningful topic.  They spent nights, weekends and any free time they had to work on the Archives, work that included writing newsletters and doing outreach.  The apartment that housed the collection for many years was one that Deborah lived in, and she recalled that people were coming and going day in and day out.  Remembering it fondly, Deborah reflected, “it was a crazy way of living but it was a wonderful time.”

The Archives Now

The Archives have now been around for over 50 years, recently celebrating their 30th anniversary in their permanent, Park Slope location.  To stay up to date with the Archives, visit their instagram at or make an appointment on their site to see the collection for yourself.  Deborah remains active in the collective, and hopes other grassroots organizations will be inspired by the success of the Archives.