Bringing Queer History Out Of The Basement

At first glance, the Chatham, Ontario-based “A Queer Archive” looks like anything but. With its vintage lamps and soft old chairs piled with handmade afghans, the space instead resembles a cozy basement — a comfortable, casual place where you’d hang out with friends. Project coordinator Mark Reinhart says this is exactly the idea.

“It was important that the basic aesthetic feel like a home — bringing the private into the public,” he says. “I wanted it to feel safe.”

A Queer Archive fits under many umbrellas — it’s a common space for queer bibliophiles and allies, a traveling art installation and a collection of books and films that captures a variety of perspectives under one (mobile) roof.

Reinhart first conceived of the idea as a student at the University of Western Ontario, where professors discussed the importance of documentation — particularly when it came to archiving the often-hidden history of LGBTQ communities. After graduation, Reinhart returned to his hometown in Chatham and joined the Board of Directors at the Chatham-Kent Public Library. During discussions with the library’s public services coordinator Tania Sharpe, Reinhart began to develop an idea for the organization of queer literature in the Chatham community. They looked to similar projects like Guelph’s Out on the Shelf program for inspiration, and received 20 boxes of books from the Guelph team to get the archive started. Reinhart began assembling an environment around the books, using his own furniture to create a cozy, sturdy and yet ultimately mobile atmosphere. “I liked the idea of making (the archive) temporary, in a way — it would disappear unless people continued showing interest in it,” he says.

The archive has since grown to over 800 books, with titles ranging from HIV/AIDS info books from the ‘80s to novels like The Perks of Being a Wallflower and books by David Sedaris. With the support of the Chatham library, the archive first exhibited this past winter at Chatham’s Thames Art Gallery, and has since made a trip to Ottawa for the Canadian Library Association’s annual meeting, where Reinhart and Sharpe spoke on an LGBTQ panel. It’s making waves amongst visitors and members of the library community alike but until Reinhart can find a permanent site for the archive, it will remain largely conceptual. Still, the archive marks an exciting step forward for queer visibility in the small community of Chatham, and for Reinhart’s own continuing work.

“In the grand scheme of things, change is happening quickly,” says Reinhart. “Maybe Chatham is the place where a project like this can start. In order to keep this going, we have to be brave, bold and ballsy.” (Alison Lang)

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