Order of Multitudes

Cultivating Communities through Archival work with Alana Kumbier

Dr. Alana Kumbier is a Research and Instruction Librarian at Amherst College. They received their Ph.D. in Comparative Studies from The Ohio State University, and they are the author of Ephemeral Material: Queering the Archive (Litwin Books, 2014). In this interview, we discuss the importance of queer and community archives as well as the problems these independent archives face.

Allison Chu: What are your research interests, and how did you get to the position where you are today?

Alana Kumbier: My research connects work in interdisciplinary fields where embodiment and solidarity matter–like disability studies; queer and feminist studies; anti-racist coalitional praxes; and Relational Cultural Theory–with my work in libraries and archives. In graduate school, I was in comparative studies at Ohio State, where my dissertation and coursework centered on history and memory studies, cultural studies of science and technology, and disability studies, in the interest of articulating a critical approach to archival studies. As I moved into librarianship, I wanted to have conversations with colleagues about critical pedagogy, disability studies, and how we support LGBTQ+ communities in our histories, historical records, and our practices. My professional path was also shaped by undergraduate mentorship from feminist librarian Francie Wolff; she modeled how to have a professional position by day, while also working on increasing access to primary sources–songs from the American Woman Suffrage Movement–and doing her own performance work. I was inspired by her model of engaged scholarship, made possible by her work in the library.

Allison Chu: A major theme that has risen throughout the Sawyer Seminar has been the groups of people who have been left out of traditional historical narratives and of conventional archives. There’s a constant need to be evaluating our archival practices. What are the challenges you’ve seen in your experience working with LGBTQ+ archives?

Alana Kumbier: I’m just ending my time serving on the Board of the Sexual Minorities Archives (SMA), which is directed by Ben Power, a curator and community activist here in Holyoke. The archives preserve, make accessible, and protect the records of sexual minority communities. It originated in the 70s as the New Alexandria Lesbian Library for Women, and in the early 1990s, Ben expanded the scope to include all folks who identify as sexual or gender minorities. My experience on the Board taught me that for community archives, there are some real and material challenges to preserving queer and trans histories. In the case of the SMA, Ben lives in the house that holds the archives. Archives like the SMA not only have the challenges of bringing in, organizing, cataloguing, and storing the materials, but they also have the additional challenge of the literal housing of the archive, like paying a mortgage and figuring out how to operate without the institutional resources that accompany conventional archives. This is also true of the Queer Zine Archive Project—where a relatively small number of people have developed a deep knowledge about the collection and keep it going. The main challenge I see for the SMA is how they will buy that house, and where that funding comes from. Bergis Jules is someone who I’m following for thinking about funding structures for community archives. The Mellon Foundation has also started offering grants for smaller archives, recognizing that grants are often the only source of funding for these archives.

Many of LGBTQ+ community archives were initially founded from an need to protect materials. Rebecka Taves Sheffield’s Documenting Rebellions tells the stories of lesbian and gay archives which were founded before we had a concept of a queer archive encompassing many genders and ways of sexual identification. These archives were protecting a legacy that was under threat, responding to fears around fascism, and preserving silenced voices, materials, and spaces. Now, decades later, these archives have much greater demand, new donations, and ever-growing collections. What started out as small projects grew, and those archives, which started out only having accountability to a small community with a really particular mission, are negotiating growth-related questions: Are they going to make affiliations with conventional academic institutions? Will they maintain their autonomy? What are the costs of doing either of those things?

Allison Chu: I want to pick up on the terminology question. The term “queer” encompasses so much variety. How do the archives respond to this?

Alana Kumbier: I would point back to Rebecka Sheffield’s book, because her work thinks about the naming conventions of archives, and how naming can be a form of identification and claiming of culture. Some of the archives have held onto their name and constituency—for example, the Lesbian Herstory Archive—to affirm that identity as central piece of their mission and focus. Others have shifted (sometimes as a survival strategy) to continue representing communities that they feel a part of. I think the SMA was definitely ahead of its time, even though “sexual minorities” is a term that I associate with older subject headings in library card catalogues. As a teacher, I also think about how we help people who come to these archives with a contemporary vocabulary do the translation to find the resources they’re looking for, as vocabularies for sexuality and gender have changed. Archivist, scholar, and media-maker Jamie A. Lee has developed what they call a “queer/ed” archival methodology–and I feel this is a necessary shift away from just “queer archives”. Lee theorizes how queer and trans people often have dynamic, changing, and nomadic identities, subjectivities, and embodiments over their lifespan. This experience is often in tension with archival systems that want to stabilize, fix, and categorize records as well as people and their identities. Similarly, the naming of these archives—which communities may co-determine—is a form of legibility and pride that may also shift over time. Part of what I appreciate about Lee’s work is how they create spaces for dialogue with and participation by folks in the community.

Allison Chu: You’ve mentioned that one of these strategies to help the ongoing efforts of those working in the archives is dialogue. How else does this manifest in your work, and what does this look like in practice?

Alana Kumbier: I’m a teaching librarian, so I’m in regular conversation with my colleagues in Archives and Special Collections at Amherst College–they are the partners I learn from most in my everyday life. One way I see this work happening in archives is through practices of describing materials in finding aids and through cataloging. I am proud to be learning from archivists who are working on a Racial History of Amherst College, to cotextualize the College’s place-based history as a settler and colonizing institution, to research and make accessible the College’s ties to slavery, the College’s contributions to the perpetuation of scientific racism, and more. This work is designed to invite dialogue, questions, and re-engagements with the College’s history–and to study the impacts of this history (as an institution and through the actions of its leaders and alumni) for descendants of enslaved people (whose enslavers had connections to the College), Indigenous communities whose homelands we occupy, and communities affected by missionary workers who were educated by the College.

I’ve also been lucky to get to foster archival dialogues in my teaching. In 2016, I co-taught a class with Michele Hardesty, Nora Miller, Leslie Fields (an archivist), and Julie Adamo (a librarian) on zine collections in the region of the Five Colleges. At Smith College, we looked at the Sophia Smith Collection zines collection. At Mount Holyoke there was a collection of zines that were donated by Margaret Rooks, who was a participant in Pioneer Valley Riot Grrrl, and at Hampshire College, where I was teaching at the time, there was a collection of zines that had been assembled over the years through students’ and other donations. We studied how the collections were organized and named, and how they came to be. In the case of the collection at Smith College, when we started working with it, it was called the “Girl Zines Collection,” and the finding aid suggested that the collection was mostly comprised of a collection donated by Tristan Taormino (who co-edited A Girl’s Guide to Taking Over the World with Karen Green). As Nora, Michele, and I worked more closely with the collection, we noticed that music zines from Tinúviel’s papers were also in the collection (Tinúviel had stamped her zines with her name), and we talked with the archivists about the differences in the existing collection and the collection described in the finding aid. In some ways, this isn’t a big deal–the zines are the same, whether they’re part of a Girl Zines Collection or the Sophia Smith Zine Collection–but shifting the name allowed for a more inclusive and expansive understanding of the identities of zine makes, their primary interests, the topics covered in the zines, and allows the collection to grow to include zines by creators who are not girl-identified. Our archivist-researcher collaboration was mutually beneficial, and a terrific example of archivists doing reparative description (sending a special shout-out to Maureen Cresci Callahan and Shannon Supple for their partnership).

Allison Chu: I’d like to move now to your book, Ephemeral Material. ​​This month’s interview theme is “Ephemerality in the Archive.” Your book, Ephemeral Material, clearly stakes a position in this theme. Where and how do you see ephemerality in your work?

Alana Kumbier: Ephemera is a form and a genre of materials that is relational. Usually ephemera are connected with something else, like a ticket to a performance or a flier handed out at a protest. These materials were often designed to serve a specific purpose at a specific time–and they may not have been made with the expectation that they would be collected. Part of what I love about ephemera is thinking about the question, To what and to whom are these things related? What can they tell us if we try to understand the conversation or events that they were a part of, and to think about not only who made them, but for whom they were made. For example, when students at Mount Holyoke were looking at the Margaret Rooks collection, they found a flier that Margaret had made for a show. The students did some primary source analysis with this flier, thought about it in terms of its design, audience, and intentions. Margaret was there with us as a special guest, and she said something like “I can tell you that I made this flier on my bedroom floor. It took me five minutes, I would have just handed it out at a show.” For Margaret, it was a great example of how specific and contingent the flier’s life was, whereas the students had expected the flier to do a lot of work that it wasn’t intended to do. During the course, students also spoke with Lauren Jade Martin, who shared her experience as a creator-participant in multiple 1990s zine networks and donated her zines to the Barnard Zine Library; she was also able to speak to the experience of having her sources in the archives, available to researchers as part of a historical record. It was such a rare gift to have creators of ephemeral, historical sources in dialogue with us. I wish we had more opportunities to think about what stories we could tell around these materials.

As Amherst’s librarian for Black Studies, I’ve been inspired by the work of professional genealogist Nicka Smith, who spoke at Amherst about her research into the Trask family. The Trasks had a plantation-based cotton empire in Mississippi and Louisiana (valued at upwards of $4 million) while they lived in Massachusetts and New York. Israel E. Trask was a donor to the Amherst College Charity Fund and served as a College trustee, so there is a direct connection to the College. Smith’s research established a genetic lineage for 350 descendants of people enslaved by the Trask family, and connected 6000 more people to the family history through archival research. This is such a powerful example of using archives to foster dialoge and connection–how Smith uses sources to build connection and community among descendants, to amplify the impact of institutional and regional ties to slavery, and to share her research methods with archivists, genealogists, and descendant communities. 

Allison Chu: These dialogues seem to me to be very present in this moment. How do we preserve this newfound knowledge, this dialogue between individuals, for the future?

Alana Kumbier: Part of the reason why I wrote Ephemeral Material the way I did was because I wanted to have a way of documenting some of the stories that went with the collections. For example, by writing about Aliza Shapiro’s materials and the DATUM show, we created a record that can be included in the collection or used as part of the finding aid. Normally in a finding aid, we may not read the story of how these things came to be in the order that they are. In her Documenting Rebellions book, Rebecka Sheffield tells stories of how selected gay and lesbian collections were built in really clear ways. She theorizes roles that people play in creating and sustaining the archives,, for example the founder or the advocate. She finds that across queer archives especially, there tend to be roles that people play in the survival and continuance of the archives. I believe that work then allows us to imagine roles for ourselves or to think about who’s not there. We tend to think about the key roles in the archives being the archivist and the researcher: the person protecting and maintaining the collection, and the people who are coming in and using it. Those are major roles, and with the queer community archives that I’ve been a part of, the roles are volunteer-based; but there are multiple other vital roles. Sheffield’s work helps us recognize those and understand the collaboration involved in sustaining the archives.

There’s also more fluidity in the reasons why people engage with queer collections–it’s important to recognize that scholarship and genealogy aren’t the only uses for collecitons. With the SMA, some people go in with a research interest, but many people go in just because they’re really curious about what the archives hold. Or maybe they want to come into a home and hang out in the space with unfettered access. I think people find themselves in the archives in a different way when it’s in this home. In a more conventional archive, you might be asked to justify what you’re going to do there, and you need to identify something that you want to look at. In these community archive spaces, it’s much more open; you may just want to surround yourself with records from people whose experiences in some way resonates with yours.

Allison Chu: Throughout this conversation, you’ve pointed to the positives and negatives of what institutions and institutionalizing an archive can do. I’m hearing about these wonderful benefits of community archives, yet also this lack of funding, or institutional support, can be devastating towards these archives.

Alana Kumbier: When I began working on Ephemeral Material, I had a strong tendency to romanticize the community archives and to think about them as a utopian space, a place where there’s a great amount of self-determination. People can really build intergenerational relationships in these archives, and that is really wonderful. But the deep and pressing reality of the SMA mortgage is a very serious constraint. I’ve been wondering about how funded, secure institutions can practice solidarity with autonomous archives like the SMA and QZAP. One way is inviting the curator to give a talk with an honorarium or a stipend. Colleges and universities can compensate a curator as a guest lecturer, teacher, or community partner when classes visit the archives, and they can fund internships for students. Both the QZAP and the SMA provide abundant educational, professional development, community-building opportunities–as well as offering space for creative practice and queer worldmaking.