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Collecting lesbian oral history

'Powerful testimonies to the experience of living': professor

Last year, Elise Chenier began wondering what had happened to the taped interviews that some 13 people had conducted in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

Chenier had recordings of her own, part of an oral history project she had undertaken when doing her master’s thesis in the early ’90s.

“What I discovered was that almost none of them had done anything with their tapes,” says Chenier, now an associate professor of history at Simon Fraser University (SFU).

“This posed a serious problem for me, because the project of LGBT oral history had been to reclaim the past, to reclaim our own history and to save it from disappearing forever, because of course the lives of LGBT people, like most marginalized people, don’t appear in the historical record,” she notes.

“That was a project that got everybody fired up and out there collecting all these stories, and so here we were in a situation where those stories were about to disappear again, after all this hard work,” she says.

There were two main reasons why the tapes were just sitting in basements or attics: people neither had the time nor resources to do anything with them, even though they wanted to, and there was no active LGBT archival collection and preservation program in Canada specifically dedicated to oral history, she explains.

Even if people donated their tapes to various organizations, she adds, there was no guarantee they’d be preserved.

Chenier decided to follow up. It also helped that the head of Special Collections at SFU, Eric Swanick, showed great interest in adding to the queer material already housed at the Burnaby campus. Chenier says Swanick embraced her idea of collecting the original analog tapes, digitizing them and putting them online as the Archive of Lesbian Oral Testimony.

“As you can imagine in these tapes, people tell incredibly intimate stories about their life experiences. They’re sometimes hilarious, they’re sometimes very painful, but they’re always very intimate,” Chenier says. “They’re powerful testimonies to the experience of living.”

Chenier hopes the archive will become a resource for teachers. She also hopes the community will support the project.
“We need the community to support our efforts to support the community,” she says. “We’re relying right now on finding personal donors to help us do the administrative work that we need to do.”

For more information or to donate, email echenier@sfu.ca