The ethics of archive acquisitions: why couldn’t an important collection of British trans history stay in the UK?

The Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada may have expanded its collection by as much as 50 per cent, according to its academic director Aaron Devor, after acquiring what’s thought to be the largest collection of material related to trans history in the UK: the ‘Transgender Archive’ built up by the sociologist Richard Ekins at the University of Ulster between 1986 and 2010, when Ekins retired and had to consider what to do with the archive next.

UVic Archives are rightly proud to have acquired the Ekins collection, which fits well with its mission of ‘actively acquiring documents, rare publications, and memorabilia of persons and organizations that have worked for the betterment of transgendered people’. The archive already contains the papers of a number of trans activists, scholars and organisations from Canada and the US, but the Ekins collection broadens the archive’s geographical scope of the archive, as Devor told the local Times Colonist newspaper: ‘We don’t have a large body of materials on the history of transgender activity in the United Kingdom, so this will flesh out that component of our collection […] It will be great to give a more comprehensive view on what’s been going on in transgender rights and organizing in a broader swath of the globe.’

Last week, however, a report in the Camden New Journal raised some troubling questions about whether the collection might have had the opportunity to stay in the UK before even being offered to UVic. The CNJ stated that Ekins’s first choice for the collection’s new home had been the Hall-Carpenter Archive at LSE – which describes itself as ‘Britain’s major resource for the study of lesbian and gay activism in the UK since the publication of the Wolfenden Report in 1957’ – but that the HCA had been unable to accept it unless it was inventoried and anonymised before the archive took it on:

After an approach to Professor Ekins’ “first choice” library, the Hall-Carpenter Archive (HCA) at the LSE, the largest source for the study of gay activism in Britain, a “stumbling block” app­eared when the university said to consider it they would need him to get rid of any items subject to copyright or containing personal information like addresses, and provide a full, professional ­inven­tory.

He is “at pains” not to criticise the LSE but said: “I’m disappointed it couldn’t stay in the UK, it is a chronicle of a part of Britain’s history.”

UVic, in contrast, was able to pay for the transportation and inventory of the material, which appears to already be on its way to Canada.

Reading that LSE – my former university – had been offered this amount of material and turned it down was a shock, and one that raises some difficult questions about the ethics of archive acquisitions, especially when they concern the histories of marginalised people. UVic’s archivists are world leaders in trans history, and could hardly have been expected to refuse the Ekins collection once it was offered to them. The thorny questions mostly come before that stage: how did the Ekins collection fail to find a home in the UK?

On the face of it, the Ekins collection should have been well within the remit of the HCA and LSE. Although the HCA highlights ‘lesbian and gay’ activism as its theme, it already contains several smaller trans-related holdings, such as small amounts of material from Trans Essex, the Transsexual Action Group, the Harry Benjamin Foundation, the Transsexual Action Organisation and the Self Help Association for Transsexuals. (It’s not clear whether or not the HCA also systematically collects bi material, though again there are holdings related to several bisexual groups and campaigns in the archive.) The Ekins collection would have been a headline acquisition that could have made the LSE’s archives a focal point for British trans history in the future. There’s all the more need for this since historical research on trans activism and gender variance in a British context is still some way behind the US, where Susan Stryker’s Transgender History has been available since 2008.

I ought to acknowledge that I don’t know myself what’s in the Ekins collection or – importantly – what isn’t in it. I have no idea, for instance, on how fully the collection covered gender variance outside the male/female binary, or the intersections of trans-ness and race, even though those are lenses that any future history of trans people in Britain will need to be sensitive to. Despite the significance of the collection, it would be a mistake to rely solely on it to represent British trans experiences in their entirety. I still have a sense that British archives have missed out by not being able to acquire it, which seemed to be shared on social media when the Camden New Journal article was circulating on Friday.

I hope that I’d be one of the least likely people to defend nationalism for its own sake: this isn’t an argument that the collection ought to stay inside British borders just because it was made within them. Neither is this a case where a foreign archive’s acquisition of a collection can be challenged because of a history of colonial exploitation by the acquiring state over the place where the material is from. The sadness I felt on hearing that LSE had been unable to acquire the archive is to do with the accessibility of the material. I suppose my general feeling is that archives ought to be located somewhere where they’ll be as accessible as possible to the people they refer to. Unless the collection is made available online by UVic – and it’s been suggested that this will happen in due course – it could only be used by researchers based in British Columbia or funded for a long research visit there, with an impact on who that much-needed history of trans experiences in Britain could be written by, and inaccessible to nearly all trans people in Britain.

There are some parallels with the arguments that break out every few years when the papers of one or other famous British writer get bought by a North American university (usually the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at UT Austin, which plans for years to acquire writers’ papers). But the ethical problems are sharper here because these are materials relating to people who have suffered systematic marginalisation and erasure, rather than the papers of members of a cultural elite. (I don’t mean to suggest that no individual writer in their own life has suffered these things; just that the two groups, as groups, aren’t equally situated.) LSE’s response in the Camden New Journal article mentioned the lack of an inventory for the collection as the stumbling block:

“The school was last contacted by Professor Ekins two years ago and requested further information about the archive’s contents.

“The school did not receive this inventory from Professor Ekins and was therefore not in a position to give the transfer any further consideration.”

If it’s the case, however, that all collections need to be inventoried and anonymised to a professional standard before the archive can accept them, then an ethical question follows: does this mean that collections belonging to owners with less time, energy and resources to bring them up to this standard are less likely to be acquired, and does this mean that collections relating to people and groups with less privilege, thus fewer resources, are disproportionately likely to be turned down? If so, this would seem to suggest that acquisition policies would need to be more flexible in order not to perpetuate erasure. (The case of the Ekins collection is more complicated because it had previously been held by another university, and we don’t as yet know how it was archived there, why it didn’t end up being archived there after Ekins’s retirement, or how permissions and anonymisation were handled when the collection was being built up.)

More ‘flexibility’ in this kind of case would mean more calls on archives’ scarce resources, including archivists’ time and the cost of their salaries while the extra preparation work was going on. The cost of taking on the collection is therefore greater (and UVic is to be commended for funding the inventorying as well as the transport of the collection to BC). Yet it doesn’t feel as if this is a cost the LSE would have been unable to bear. I have to acknowledge that I don’t know precisely how the HCA is funded or how its own budget relates to the LSE budget as a whole; however, LSE as an institution has been capable of buying prestige office buildings in the Holborn area such as the Mobil Towers and the former Land Registry Office building on Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and charges its non-EEA students some of the highest fees in the country. Although the leadership of Craig Calhoun, who replaced Howard Davies after the Gaddafi scandal, offered LSE an opportunity to ‘reassert itself as a centre of social justice, equality and fairness’, these hopes need to be backed up by action for them not to appear as empty branding promises.

From my point of view as a former student and a frequent target of LSE alumni fundraising, funding an archivist’s time to prepare the Ekins collection, or another collection in similar condition, is one of the most worthwhile things that LSE could use its money for. I’d happily have contributed to a public appeal to raise the extra funds if it couldn’t have been funded from existing resources, and I surely can’t be alone in wishing we had been asked. Equally, there might have been scope to approach the Heritage Lottery Fund (as suggested by a British social historian on Twitter), which includes archival collections among the types of project it supports. I don’t know enough about the decisions made by the HCA, LSE and the archive owner to comment further on this side of the case, but I’m left with a feeling that at some or other point acquiring the Ekins collection for LSE wasn’t made as high a priority as I’d personally believe it ought to be.

For wholly or predominantly cis organisations with self-declared ‘lesbian and gay’ interests dealing with trans-related material, there are further considerations. Unfortunately, there’s a long track record of mainstream gay and lesbian organisations reacting indifferently to trans concerns or deliberately deciding to exclude them in order to make it easier to achieve an objective that will benefit the cis people they represent. (The latest is the widespread celebration of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples Act) despite the serious obstacles it puts in the way of married trans people applying for gender recognition from the state.) Cis privilege means only hearing about this when a controversy brings it to your attention rather than because it has a personal impact on your own life (I regret to say, for instance, that I didn’t appreciate how deeply many trans people resent Stonewall until an incident a few years ago); but trans people know very well that cissexism or outright transphobia on the part of LGB organisations goes on. Because of this background, organisations with a progressive or radical remit – and the HCA would fall into this category – need to actively demonstrate that they’re aware of this form of privilege and working to undermine it, or trans erasure will continue – sometimes through ignorance rather than intent, but with the same outcome nonetheless.

At the moment, there isn’t any more information about the HCA’s contact with the Ekins archive beyond last week’s article in the Camden New Journal. My intention in writing this isn’t to single out any one person or organisation for blame, rather to express some of the reasons behind my unease that the current situation has ended up happening at all, and to raise some ethical questions that archivists and historians ought to be aware of, especially when we deal with the histories of people we have privilege over. Instances like this show all too well that, as Joan Schwartz and Terry Cook have written, ‘[a]rchives […] are not passive storehouses of old stuff, but active sites where social power is negotiated, contested, confirmed’ (Schwartz and Cook 2002: 1, £). Through the negotiations and choices they make in this and many other settings, archivists shape the content and organisation of their archive. For Schwartz and Cook, this makes it essential that archivists acknowledge rather than deny their power over memory:

Archives – as records – wield power over the shape and direction of historical scholarship, collective memory, and national identity, over how we know ourselves as individuals, groups, and societies. And ultimately, in the pursuit of their professional responsibilities, archivists – as keepers of archives – wield power over those very records central to memory and identity formation through active management of records before they come to archives, their appraisal and selection as archives, and afterwards their constantly evolving description, preservation, and use. (2002: 2)

Part of this accountability, surely, must include thinking through how privilege might affect archivists’ conscious and unconscious decisions about what they collect and how they collect it. The result can be archives that are as inclusive, open and public as they could possibly strive to be: helping to make future histories and memories of the past as diverse as they, too, deserve to be.