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Fundamental: Gerber/Hart's Mission
by Kennette Crockett
2003-06-25

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Every civilization needs their keepers of the flame, a recorder of events, significant moments that shape or change a group's destiny and future. The GLBT population is no different, especially when most events related to GLBT community are not noticed by mainstream culture and media.

The Gerber/Hart Library, founded in 1981 and now located in Edgewater at 1127 W. Granville, is one keeper of the GLBT flame. Originally called the Midwest Gay and Lesbian Archive and Library, the name was rethought and eventually changed to honor two pioneers in the movement: Henry Gerber, founder of the Society for Human Rights, and Pearl M. Hart, a lawyer and community activist for women's and children's rights.

Here among thousands of books about gay and lesbian life either revealed in fiction, nonfiction or documented in the gay and lesbian press and their archives, you can relive significant moments in Chicago's history.

'We're tracking the Belmont Rocks and as they are being renovated, that is a significant piece of history that is changing its shape and we have a call out requesting people's pictures and memories,' explained Dave Howser, president of the board for the Gerber/ Hart Library.

'That is a good example of something that had been around forever that is now changing and we are documenting it; we do the same with bars.' Here Howser talks about the importance of Gerber/Hart, books and why you should pay a visit to one of the largest GLBT libraries in the Midwest.

WCT: How did you get involved with Gerber/Hart?

DH: I first got interested through their book sales. Actually, I was an avid book collector in the sense that I wanted to build up my gay and lesbian library and I would come to their annual fall book sales. I got hooked there and I began to see the advantages of the library and being able to check out books there like any other library. I could review books and check out videos so I became a patron. Then I started working with the book sales and became the book sales manager and then I later got on the board.

WCT: Do you think that you could have had a similar experience at any other library?

DH: I could not have done it at any other library because there is not any other library like Gerber/ Hart in the Midwest where you can find so many gay- and lesbian-centered books. If I would have just volunteered at a public library, I would have a wonderful selection of books but I would have to weed through which ones are gay and which ones are not. So I was astonished to find out how many books, fiction and nonfiction, are written about LGBT topics.

WCT: What types of books are you now seeing from gay and lesbian authors?

DH: We are seeing a lot more, but back in 1981 I wasn't part of the organization, but I guess there was sort of a pink ceiling. There were not a lot of gay authors and publishers and people questioned if there was a market for gay books, especially gay fiction. But now there are much more titles. Gay authors are much more prolific now than they ever had been. And I began seeing just a wealth of even juvenile books written for young people either as LGBT youth or youth who have LGBT parents and I am surprised by the diversity.

WCT: How does the library get its books?

DH: Once in a blue moon, we may have some publishers who donate to us [laughs]. It would be great if that happened but mostly it is through patrons who come to our book sales and will donate the books that they have; that is how we get 90 percent of our books. If we have two copies, we use if for our book sale and it we have one we add it to our collection.

WCT: What are the main types of books?

DH: We have plenty of fiction that would include gay, lesbian, transgendered, bisexual and we have plenty of nonfiction that is ordered by the Library of Congress. So we have reference, juvenile, poetry, art books, history books, biographies, autobiographies, religion, spirituality, coming out, sexuality, gender, you name it. And then we have a collection of periodicals that include national publications like Out and the Advocate, and XY magazine and things like that. We also have newsletters and papers.

WCT: Who uses the library?

DH: We could probably break it down into a couple of different types of folks. We do have some folks who use the library like a circulating library. I work on the Friday shifts and a lot of times you will see the same folks coming in to renew their books or to get more books. We also see students from colleges and a graduate school working on research; that is another change that we have seen in the library. We are seeing a lot more students who are choosing LGBT topics to research and do their doctoral papers and then we may see sixth graders coming in working on a history project that deals with the Chicago gay and lesbian community.

WCT: So are their teachers bringing them in … how are the younger people hearing about the library?

DH: Usually it is either parents or the kids will come in on their own, but most of the time it is their parents. I do believe that a lot of teachers know about Gerber/Hart.

WCT: Why is this place important?

DH: Well the easiest way to answer this question is that we don't realize how important it is for us to really track what is going on in the Chicago gay and lesbian community. So it is extremely important for our history to be able to collect it and archive it and say this is our history, this is what is going on and went on. This is what happened in 2002, two significant AIDS organizations closed or this is what happened in the year 2007 when we finally ... whatever that is. What makes Gerber/Hart so important is that we are preserving our culture, what's happened in the past, what is going on right now for those historians of the future who will begin to realize how important this library is. We are the largest in the Midwest, and that is hands down easy. There are other places that archive LGBT materials that have larger collections or there may be other larger circulating libraries that are part of universities and things like that, that maybe have gender or sexuality or things like that, but to have both under one roof is pretty unique.

WCT: Getting back to documentation, is it important for groups to document their own history.

DH: It is so hard to see what is going on as it is happening—it really does take a few years and retrospective. Then it is like 'wow we had no idea that this was happening,' like our struggle for equal rights tends to be a very slow pace and we are documenting that as well as the rich and flavorful cultural things that happen. Like we have flyers, t-shirts and other memorabilia and advertising associated with Chicago beyond just pride month. Those things give color and depth.

WCT: So what are you tracking now?

DH: Well this past year 2002 the city of Chicago honored both of our name sakes— Pearl Hart has a mark of distinction and Henry Gerber's house became a historical landmark. So Chicago is waking up and seeing the importance of history being made in Chicago. The Belmont Rocks and as they are being renovated and things like that, that is a significant piece of history that is changing its shape and we have a call out requesting people's pictures and memories.

WCT: Did someone documented Paris Dance? Do you have more women's history or men's?

DH: A lot of stuff that we have in our archives or special collections is in its raw form. We might have an individual who has donated his/her memorabilia and it might include things from Paris or Carol's Speakeasy. So if someone said we wanted to document a place specifically then we would have to do a search and we document things so things can be crossed-referenced. We have so many things that you probably could look at the birth and demise of a lot of bars.

WCT: Do you think you are balancing out people of color in the GLBT history?

DH: You know back to the collections—we basically collect anything that is given to us or that we can get our hands on. So we don't have a lot of control over what we have and do not have. We are in the collection business, more so than seeking out. There have been times in the past that we have tried to increase transgender issues, and we contact people to see what are the best books representing that group. We have gotten a lot of donations from LCCP, Women in the Director's Chair, and Kindred Hearts. We make sure that the different groups out there know that we are here and that they share the value of their history and donate items so that they can be well represented. We want folks who feel that they are not being represented in Chicago's history to donate stuff so they can be represented.

WCT: Have you all thought about moving closer to Boys Town like the Center on Halsted—because a lot of people may not know of you?

DH: I am sure that that is the case. I have talked with other librarians and in general libraries are really starting to see less and less patronage because it is much easier to surf the web and get your information. I am sure that the Center will get a lot of foot traffic and early on they told us that they wanted to have the library there, but not the archives because they didn't have space for both. There was some hesitation about having something that is not really accessible to the public, because our archives need to be kept organized and temperature controlled. It is not something that you can just go and leaf through. So they had some concerns and limitations and we decided that it is much more important to keep them both together, even though we are off the beaten track—we are a little bit north of Boys Town. We wanted everything under one roof so folks who do come here for research purposes do not have to go to two places.

____

Gerber/Hart Library is located at 1127 W. Granville Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60660-2012, (773) 381-8030, www.gerberhart.org, e-mail info@gerberhart.org . Hours: Wednesdays and Thursdays 6-9 p.m., Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays noon-4 p.m. (Use of the archives and collections is by appointment only.)

Gerber/Hart Library will celebrate Henry Gerber's 111th birthday Saturday, June 28 with cake, punch and other sweet treats. The event begins at noon and continues until 4 p.m. A drawing for a free membership to Gerber/Hart will be held.

Members of the Gerber/Hart contingent participating in that afternoon's Dyke March will cut the cake before leaving for the march as a group at 1 p.m.

Henry Gerber was born June 29, 1892 in Bavaria, Germany. He immigrated to this country in 1913 and, in 1924, formed the Society for Human Rights, the first documented homosexual emancipation organization in the United States. In 2001, the city of Chicago declared the home in which Gerber resided when he formed the Society, 1710 N. Crilly Ct., a landmark. A plaque embedded in the sidewalk in front of the home was unveiled in June 2002.

A short segment on Gerber from the 1997 video Out of the Past: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Rights in America will be screened throughout the day.

Gerber/Hart, working with Friends of the Arts, New Town Writers, and others, has begun plans for a Spectacular Spectacular in September. Call (773) 381-8030


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