“We are here, and we have been here”: Library preserves, shares Iowa’s LGBTQ history

Updated: Jun. 17, 2021 at 11:14 PM CDT
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IOWA CITY, Iowa (KCRG) - A space in Iowa City is working to ensure the history of LGBTQ Iowans is preserved for generations.

The LGBTQ Iowa Archives & Library, located in the Wesley Center on N. Dubuque St. near downtown, opened its doors in January, though Executive Director Aiden Bettine said establishing it had been a goal for years prior.

While the library is holding off on hosting larger Pride Month celebrations and events until June 2022 because of the pandemic, Bettine said their work to collect and preserve LGBTQ history meets the current moment in the state.

“In a year like 2021, where we’ve seen so much anti-LGBTQ legislation in particular that’s targeted particularly trans youth, it’s an important message to be able to look historically but also tell people that our present moment, the history in the making, is also important for our community,” he said.

The space serves multiple purposes — as a lending library, an archive, and a collection of oral history narratives, among them — and is open six days a week.

The lending library, which accepts donations, has expanded to contain more than 1,400 books available for checkout.

“We have books available for all ages, K through 12 collection, as well as a significant nonfiction and fiction collection as well,” Associate Director Ann Kreitman said.

The archive features donated material, ranging from LGBTQ magazines, posters, and newsletters to one Iowan’s personal collection of love letters.

“We’re working hard to collect queer material from across the state and really build a research hub for, what does it mean to be LGBTQ in Iowa, today and historically,” Bettine said.

Kreitman said their work is tied to a sense of “queer lineage,” which she said can be difficult for people to discern, especially if they don’t have anyone they would be able to learn from and talk with.

“As queer people, we get a certain kind of history from our parents, a certain kind of inheritance,” she said. “But when you come out, you are coming into a whole new community whose history you have to learn and find out for yourself.”

The library also owns 25 recording kits that people can check out to contribute to an oral history project that chronicles the experiences of the state’s LGBTQ community. Staff will train people on how to use the kits and conduct interviews.

Bettine said they hope to answer one main question through that project: “What does it mean to be here and be queer?”

“Queer people are everywhere, and there is a long history to be preserved right here in Iowa,” Kreitman added.

As the LGBTQ Iowa Archives & Library grows and people feel more safe gathering as the pandemic subsides, Kreitman and Bettine hope it fosters community between LGBTQ Iowans across generations.

“So people can see themselves reflected in the past, and hopefully, that helps make some of the present at least a little bit easier to bear,” Bettine said.

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