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Gerber/Hart Turns 25
by Amy Wooten

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Pictured Gerber/Hart board and supporters. Photo by Mel Ferrand

Those at Gerber/Hart know that a sense of community can't exist without the knowledge of its own history.

The idea began in the 1970s to create a space that would collect, preserve and teach the history of the Chicago LGBT community. On Jan. 15, 1981, that idea came to fruition.

Twenty five years later, Edgewater's Gerber/Hart library is still alive and strong, celebrating its silver anniversary and continuing to shelve, display and store the life of a community. A quarter century has passed, and much around Gerber/Hart has changed. LGBT books can now be found in Borders, and Barnes & Noble. The information age has exploded. Acceptance of the community has grown, as well as Gerber/Hart's collection and space. But with its three-part mission as a library, archives and cultural center, Gerber/Hart looks towards the future, knowing it's as vital today as it was back then.

'It symbolizes the life of a people,' Gerber/Hart president and curator Karen Sendziak emphasized. 'That LGBT individuals did not just have a history after the Stonewall rebellion. That we were here on this earth long before, and there's a lot of evidence of that here at Gerber/Hart.'

Although much has changed, such as the Chicago Public Library and Chicago Historical Society building up their LGBT collections, Gerber/Hart tries to stick to the original intent of its founders: collecting everything from protest banners and meeting minutes to fiction novels and magazines. 'It still does much of the same thing, but everything around it has changed,' general collections and technology librarian Paul Keith said.

'Gerber/Hart was a forerunner, but what it is doing is still needed and important,' he added. 'And it's also kind of nice that it's community-owned, as opposed to Chicago History Society or Chicago Public Library, which really isn't as integrated with the gay community and as responsive to the gay community as Gerber/Hart is.'

'Its a big community, and to have a sense of the community, you have to have a sense of the past,' Keith said. Gerber/Hart doesn't house books simply because the author is gay, but 'stuff gay people have created about their community and about their experience as gay people.'

Historian John D'Emilio recently finished serving his four years on the Gerber/Hart's board of directors. He frequently sends his students to Gerber/Hart. 'The resources that Gerber/Hart hold are unmatched in the city.'

The historical archived material is what Gerber/Hart has that other places lack.

'That material exists nowhere else,' Sendziak said. 'It represents the lives of so many people.'

Many items that represent the community's past can't be found online or in bookstores. 'What we have here is vastly more important than just books,' Sendziak added. Individuals have donated a range of items, from paper records of organizations and people to buttons, pins, banners and photographs.

D' Emilio describes LGBT libraries such as Gerber/Hart as 'vital.' 'I think it's wonderful that we push and successfully win over mainstream institutions to be gay-friendly, but I also think that there's always a vital place for something like Gerber/Hart. It symbolizes the way our past and our present are connected. It's a symbol of how important history is to building community, even if we don't realize it,' he added.

For example, the giant, red lips from the now-defunct bar, Carol's Speakeasy, are housed in the archives room. 'There's no lips like that anywhere else,' Sendziak said, laughing. 'Every single object represents a moment in time that will never be repeated.'

When Sendziak came to Gerber/Hart as a volunteer in 1987 at the library's third location on Sheffield, things looked grim.

'When I joined Gerber/Hart, it was at it's lowest possible point,' Sendziak said. At that time, the library's founder, Gregory Sprague, had recently passed away due to AIDS-related tuberculosis. The male librarian, Joseph Gregg, also died of AIDS in November 1987. 'It wasn't so much an organization, but a collection,' she added.

But with the help of its devoted volunteers, Gerber/Hart is still the home to the community's history.

In 1979, the Chicago chapter of the Gay Academic Union opened a lending library on Ridge Avenue in Rogers Park. The library eventually folded, but on April 19, 1980, the Chicago Gay and Lesbian History Project, spearheaded by historian and researcher Gregory Sprague, and Gay Horizons threw a one-day drive to collect materials for a gay and lesbian archives. They sought gay magazines and newspapers; photos, letters and clippings of gay and lesbian people; records of defunct organizations; materials from current organizations; and gay and lesbian memorabilia.

In January of 1981, the Articles of Establishment of the 'Midwest Gay and Lesbian Archive and Library' went into effect. Later that year, the name was changed to include the names of Pearl Hart and Henry Gerber.

Hart, who practiced law, was dubbed the 'Guardian Angel of Chicago's Gay Community' for her fight against police harassment. Henry Gerber founded the first U.S. gay-rights organization, the Society for Human Rights in 1924, in Illinois.

The library and archives is completely run by volunteers, and every item in the library has been donated.

Gerber/Hart was located up and down the 3200 block of Sheffield until it moved to 3352 N. Paulina in 1991. After several name changes, five locations, a flooding, burglaries, an induction into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame and many Pride floats later, Gerber/Hart continues its mission of preservation and education.

For the future, Sendziak said Gerber/Hart will need to adapt to the times by further emphasizing history through encouraging academics to conduct and present their research at the library—something Gerber/Hart has already begun through events like its lecture series. 'There's so much research that needs to be done,' said Sendziak, who describes Gerber/Hart as the 'guardian repository of history.'

Sendziak also wants more equal footing between the archives and library by expanding the archives collection.

D'Emilio believes that this mission is crucial, because it will enable the Chicago LGBT community to preserve, present and teach its own history.

'Our mission is education,' Sendziak said. 'We want people to understand the lives of the people who came before them.'

She encourages people to refrain from tossing their items from their time spent at organizations. 'Give them to Gerber/Hart library,' Sendziak said. Gerber/Hart, she added, will put the materials into context through their rich knowledge of the U.S.'s and Chicago's LGBT history.

'People need to understand how valuable their lives are,' Sendziak stressed.

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