Reflections on the Burning Library

Neal Kane, chair, The History ProjectPreparing for The History Project’s presentation in conjunction with the Lyric Stage’s April 12 performance of The Temperamentals has enabled the members of our group to revisit some of the original research we compiled for our 1998 book Improper Bostonians. While helping to assemble the information for the mini-exhibit created by THP for the Lyric’s lobby, I thought of Edmund White’s essay collection The Burning Library, whose title refers to the idea that when someone dies, a library burns. 

What was life like for lesbians and gay men in Boston during the years chronicled in The Temperamentals? This is a question we will seek to address in our presentation – one that is difficult to answer for a number of reasons. Key among them is the fact that while American society had never been hospitable toward men and women who identified as homosexual prior to 1950, the atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion that characterized the Cold War era compelled gay people to adopt an even greater degree of secrecy. As a result, thousands of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals had to live with the reality that the substance of their experiences as loving and sexual beings would never find validation in the historical record. They were compelled to burn – metaphorically, and sometimes literally – the libraries of their lives.

Lost to history

The History Project’s work to restore gay New Englanders to their rightful place in the historical narrative of the 1950s and 1960s has often been a somber exercise. In attempting to document gay life during the Cold War, archivists and researchers are confronted, for the most part, with a melancholic silence. During that time, gay people had every incentive not to preserve the substance of their lives in letters, photographs, and public records – the building blocks that constitute the very foundation of historical research. A snapshot or love letter could serve as grounds for termination, disinheritance, or blackmail. We will never know the number and volume of records destroyed by gay New Englanders and their families in the name of “privacy” and “discretion” during that period. When those individuals died, the library of their lives perished with them – and no one was there to preserve it.

As a result, the efforts of The History Project to reconstitute that period of New England’s LGBT history have been limited to preserving the sparse remnants of historical information that survived the period before Stonewall: a few oral histories, a handful of publications, and a meager store of photographs.

black and white photo of drag king
 black and white photo of drag queen
Drag king and queen, late 1950’s, Boston

The members of THP are motivated, in large part, by a commitment to honor those brave LGBT individuals whose stories were lost to history. Having amassed one of the largest LGBT archival collections in the country, which spans both the pre-Stonewall and post-Stonewall eras, we lovingly preserve those documents for posterity and share them with researchers and the public. Our archives chronicle the rich tapestry of gay lives in Boston and beyond – how we have lived, loved, struggled, protested, and triumphed. As an independent archives, we are able to save records that would otherwise be destroyed, and create opportunities for the public to experience how the history they contain can be brought to life. Programs such as our series From the Archives give individuals the opportunity to learn more about the social and historical significance of our collections. Collaborations with other organizations such as the Lyric help us educate community members – both gay and straight – about the contributions of LGBT individuals to the historical narrative.

Our dream is to acquire a space that will serve as a permanent home for our archives and a center for scholarly research and public exhibitions related to New England’s LGBT history. As we pursue that dream, we continue to process thousands of documents annually, thanks to the tireless efforts of volunteers who spend their nights and weekends transforming chaotic boxes of paper into carefully preserved and fully indexed collections. Their work is informed by pride, patience, and a shared goal: ensuring that the achievements of LGBT individuals assume and maintain their rightful place in history for generations to come. 
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photo of Scott Erickson with button collection
Scott Erickson discussed the button collection he donated to The History Project as part of our From the Archives series