Aiden Bettine spent two years working alongside others (including Grinnell College Visiting Assistant Professor AJ Lewis) to plan the LGBTQ Iowa Archives and Library, but he didn’t expect a pandemic to provide the final push they needed to bring it to life. As COVID-19 spread in 2020, Aiden and his co-founders recognized that the queer community was in an especially precarious position due to many queer community members’ roles as essential workers and LGBTQ folks’ often fraught relationships with health institutions, among other factors. If ever there were a time to preserve intergenerational knowledge and queer Iowans’ histories, it was now. If anyone would be in a position to identify the value of community archives, it would be Aiden.
As a history PhD candidate who earned an MLIS degree in 2020 and is now working as the Community and Student Life Archivist at the University of Iowa Libraries, Aiden is familiar with the institutional archives’ strengths and scope. Per Aiden, community archives are “archival projects that are founded and desired and owned and maintained by a community,” which he sees as part of a “both/and” relationship with institutional archives. For the LGBTQ Iowa Archives and Library specifically, “there’s an affinity across identity on one hand and there’s a geographical affinity as well” that inspires Iowans to contribute both personal stories and physical items to the archives.
Despite being housed in Iowa City, this community archives aims to preserve the histories of queer Iowans across the entire state, in part via interviews. Aiden envisions the archive’s oral history work as serving two main purposes: the first is to establish a relationship between the community archives and the person narrating their story, or what Aiden describes as “a first tether and connection to a lot of LGBTQ folks across the state.” The second is to encourage people to donate items, in the hope of eventually building a substantial collection of archival materials.
While Aiden soon plans to train volunteers to perform oral history interviews, in the meantime, he is focused on producing what he calls history-by-letters. What began as a mail campaign in summer 2020 has morphed into short, monthly narratives sharing the history of LGBTQ Iowans with a broader public. As of February 2021, the mailing list stands at over 125 individuals and 20 organizations in more than 20 Iowa cities and 19 states around the country. Aiden hopes that these letters will educate Iowans and non-Iowans alike about the rich LGBTQ history in Iowa, especially in rural areas. As Aiden describes it, “Nobody keeps [the letters] to themselves. They hand them to other people, read them together…One more person gets a piece of mail, or one more person tells their friend about it, and something happens.”
For Aiden, these letters are about showing people “the depth and expansiveness of the queer history” in Iowa. “The letters are a good kind of marker of what we’re trying to do, where this work is going, and how we’re trying to share it,” he says. “It’s one thing to just collect it and have it and put it in a room and to say okay, it’s safe here for a researcher, but education is such a big arm of our work.” Aiden doesn’t just limit this education aspect to the community archives, either; he incorporates oral history projects into his classroom. Aiden credits his history department teaching experience as demonstrating how “public history skills are transferrable skills” that should be applied in both the community and the classroom.
Aiden’s past involvement at the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies has also played a central role in helping him redefine community engagement, a key feature of this community archives. He first participated in the Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy in 2018 before working as a graduate assistant for the Mellon-funded Humanities for the Public Good grant in 2019. “The Obermann Center has helped me think about what community relationships and partnerships and long-term commitments look like. They demonstrate a deep commitment and the patience and time aspect of community engagement that I think is central. It’s about partnerships and the mutually beneficial aspects of relationships,” Aiden explains. He also credits the relationships he formed at the Obermann Center, among other networks, with helping him bring the community archives to life via financial support, spreading the word, and connecting with others who can help him grow the project.
While the pandemic has slowed some of the in-person opportunities that Aiden imagines for the archive’s physical space, its post-pandemic community-building potential still sets it apart from institutional archives. “People aren’t going to go hang out in a research reading room. In a community archives, there’s that type of space and that kind of affective and community nature that you’re just not going to get in institutional archives anywhere.” The LGBTQ Iowa Archives and Library’s potential as a safe, supportive gathering place for LGBTQ-identifying locals is one of the many rich contributions Aiden sees for Iowa City, but as his history-by-letters demonstrate, this archive’s reach extends far beyond the town’s boundaries.