LGBTQ Iowa Archives and Library finds a new home at the Close House

The LGBTQ Iowa Archives and Library reopened at their new home on the second floor of the Public Space One Close House, photographed on Thursday, April 14, 2022. The Archives and Library was previously housed in the basement of the Wesley Center. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

The LGBTQ Iowa Archives and Library opened the doors to its new home on the second floor of the Close House on April 9. With large, sunny windows, a reading nook and a children’s area, the space will allow for more programming and events.

Previously, the archives and library was located in the basement of the Wesley Center. The move to the new space at the corner of Gilbert and Bowery Street had been planned since July 2021, when Public Space One bought the Close House and extended an invitation to Aiden Bettine, the archives’ executive director. Bettine loves how bright and open the new space, especially the reading nook in front of the windows.

“What an invitation to come and sit and be cozy and spend time in the space. We want people to linger,” he said.

The archives and library provides books for all ages, written by LGBTQ authors and/or discussing LGBTQ topics. There are 1,500 books currently in the collection, including fiction, nonfiction, memoir, history and children’s literature.

The books can be checked out to anyone in Iowa City and the surrounding area. Readers can borrow books for a three-week period, and that can be renewed three times for a total of 12 weeks. There are no fines for overdue books, but the library may limit the borrowing privileges of readers with multiple unreturned books.

With the room on the second floor, along with other sections of the house, Bettine plans to have more programs and events, just in time for summer. They’re hoping to hold book clubs for different age groups, from middle school to adult level, as well as queer story time for elementary-aged children and younger.

While there are LGBTQ groups for high school and college students, there isn’t a space for younger LGBTQ kids, and parents have asked for a place for these kids to hang out and become friends, he said.

The children’s section at the LGBTQ Iowa Archives and Library in the Close House. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

“We want to kind of step in as a library, and arguably do what libraries do best, and offer books and readings and story time avenues,” Bettine said. “Our charge as queer and trans adults in the state of Iowa is to speak up and care for, and make space and advocate and be role models and hopefully be those, you know, good ancestors in the future, to queer and trans youth.”

While the lending library has moved to the Close House, the archival space will remain in the Wesley Center, and will also function as a digitization and workspace. Collections are available to the public with a 24-hour advance request, so they can be brought to the Close House reading room. The library will also have regular archive events and exhibits for the public to examine.

The archives preserve both the urban and rural queer histories in Iowa. It has a collection of love letters by Craig Esbeck, the first donor to the archives; records of organizations like the Quire of Eastern Iowa and wedding officiations; and gay and lesbian publications, like RFD Magazine, Iowa City Women’s Press and Access Lines.

The organization is accepting donations of personal letters, photographs or posters, banners, signs or T-shirts, CDs, DVDs, oral histories and other like material.

“I think [the archive] shows a record of, I don’t know, the everydayness of queer life in Iowa historically, that I think a lot of people don’t expect to be there,” Bettine said.

Bettine’s favorite artifact in the archives is a cassette tape, a recording of a letter to Craig Esbeck by his friend, Elaine, in the 1980s. The tape opens with “Dear Craig Poo” along with the clickety clack of a typewriter, as Elaine dictates and writes. She invites Esbeck to celebrate Christmas in Minneapolis, and the recording ends with a Christmas song.

“It is the most endearing thing in our archives, I would say,” Bettine said. “I remember the first time I listened to it, and just like, I don’t know, I felt like my breath stopped as I figured out what was going on, ’cause it’s so beautiful.”

“To me it symbolizes like the, I don’t know, tenacity of community friendships in the queer community, and how strong our bonds are,” he said. “This is a call home to his family, but it’s his chosen and made family in the queer community in the 1980s. And I think that’s just so powerful and beautiful.”

A long bookshelf wraps around the back wall at LGBTQ Iowa Archives and Library, with spaces to make buttons, read and work. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Reopening in the Close House gives the archives and library an opportunity to collaborate with Public Space One. Bettine hopes that artists examine the archival material, share them with other people and bring new life to these stories. Iowa City Poetry and the Center for Afrofuturist Studies will have rooms in the house, providing more space for cross-pollination.

“We need the visual arts, the musical arts, theater arts, performance art, creative writing and literary arts, to respond and engage all this archival material,” he said. “That is certainly a goal to get more artists responding to the queer material that we’re collecting.”

Public Space One also operated out of the Wesley Center basement, said Bettine. With their shared “space genealogy,” the new location felt like a “natural fit.”

“Our organizations do align our missions in a lot of ways and have that community-oriented approach,” he said.

Bettine, an archivist at the University of Iowa, founded the LGBTQ Iowa Archives and Library in 2020. The idea arose while he worked on the Transgender Oral History Project of Iowa, which collects the lives and stories of transgender, nonbinary and gender nonconforming people in Iowa. Bettine started this project in 2018, during his Ph.D. studies at UI.

He worked closely with A.J. Lewis, who headed the LGBT Oral Histories of Central Iowa at Grinnell College. While Bettine and Lewis interviewed queer Iowans, they uncovered mountains of potential archival material, objects like old photographs and posters.

The Close House, an historic landmark on 538 S Gilbert St, Iowa City. Oct. 28, 2021. — Jason Smith/Little Village

At the time, there were no LGBTQ-specific collecting development policies in archives across the state. They asked themselves, “There’s a lot of stuff here. Who’s going to collect it?” Neither Bettine nor Lewis are native Iowans and don’t know if they will settle in the state. Maybe the job is better suited for someone else, they thought. But when the COVID-19 pandemic began, Bettine remembered the impact of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

“We can’t even imagine how much has been lost through the AIDS epidemic in terms of queer history,” he said. “We didn’t just lose their futures for a lot of folks. We’ve lost their stories and the capacity to hand down documents and information from their lives.”

“That made us really worried about another round of losing this generational memory, and these stories, and all of this archival material,” Bettine said.

Elderly people, essential workers, people with disabilities and BIPOC people are more at risk of COVID-19. Faced with the threat of repeated history, Archives staff penned a manifesto, and during Pride month, they broadcasted it across the state. But he didn’t expect it to manifest so quickly.

At the start, Bettine imagined an apartment archives, but in November, Rick Miller of the Des Moines Pride Center donated 30 boxes of books to the newly formed library. Bettine couldn’t ingest that many books in his apartment, so he started renting a space in the Wesley Center. From there, community members began volunteering, from high schoolers to undergraduates to queer elders.

Free buttons, brochures and bookmarks at the entrance to the LGBTQ Iowa Archives and Library at the Close House. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village
Free zines on display on a shelf in the LGBTQ Iowa Archives and Library in the Close House. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Bettine, who studied history and library/information science, credits the queer library ancestors of the ’70s and ’80s for the nonprofit’s rapid development. While researching their paper and letters, they left him a road map for his work, he said.

As the archives grow, and more books fill the shelves, Bettine hopes that it will inspire the next generation.

“Queer history matters. And the minutiae of everyday life in Iowa matters,” he said. “It gives LGBTQ youth, and people who are newly coming out, proof that we’ve always been here, and that we’ve always existed, and that we’ve always found ways to survive, regardless of what’s happening politically or culturally.”

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