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‘Archives of Our Own’: Hidden Heritage and the Cork LGBT Archive

'Archives are not neutral! So many of us find ourselves invisible and excluded from the mainstream versions of history and heritage. So many communities have had to establish archives of our own to ensure that our voices and our histories are recorded and shared.'  - Orla Egan, Founder of the Cork LGBT Archive

Community archives aim to give visibility to the stories and histories of specific cultures and communities that are often underrepresented in national or regional archives. In this blog, we look at the award-winning work of the Cork LGBT Archive

 

About the Cork LGBT Archive

The Cork LGBT Archive, founded by Orla Egan, gathers, preserves, and shares information about the rich history of LGBT activism and community in Cork. Orla was the winner of the inaugural DRI Community Archive Scheme in 2019 and the Cork LGBT Archive collection has been preserved for long-term access in the Repository. Orla’s work has been recognised through numerous other accolades and awards and this year, in particular, has been a year of acknowledgements. In March 2021, Orla was awarded a UCC Athena Swan Equality Award 2021 for her work on the Cork LGBT Archive and in the spring of 2021, Cork LGBT Archive was announced as one of six finalists in the Heritage Category for the National Lottery Good Causes Awards. The Cork LGBT Archive also received a grant from the Heritage Council to support the further development of the digital archive during the summer of 2021, the creation of an online photography exhibition ‘Cork Queeros’, and the filming of several oral history interviews. 

The funding received from the Heritage Council enabled the Cork LGBT Archive to hire two early career researchers – Patrick Egan and Mira Dean – to work on digitising materials to add to the digital archive on the Cork LGBT website and the collections in the Digital Repository of Ireland (DRI) and Europeana. The digitisation and archival work began in June 2021 and will continue over the summer. In the interview below, we speak to Orla, Patrick, and Mira about hidden heritage and the Cork LGBT Archive.  

 

Interview with Orla Egan, Patrick Egan, and Mira Dean 

DRI: In an interview with Pride Magazine, you stated that ‘the heritage grants are important, in practical terms, and also symbolically, as a clear demonstration of the inclusion of a queer archival project within Irish heritage’. Can you expand on the symbolic importance of the grant to the Cork LGBT Archive?

Orla Egan: I remember applying for the first grant from the Heritage Council back in 2016. It was to buy acid-free boxes for the safe storage of the Cork LGBT Archive collection. I was never so excited to see a stack of grey boxes. To me getting that first grant was so symbolically important. It was a clear statement from the Irish Heritage Council that they acknowledged the importance of Cork LGBT history and heritage – that we were welcome and included within Irish heritage. For a community that has experienced marginalisation, discrimination, and exclusion, this was so important. LGBT history and heritage has often been hidden, unacknowledged and, at times, deliberately obscured or denied. So the inclusion and acknowledgement by the Heritage Council meant a lot to us.

We have built up a very positive working relationship with the Heritage Council over the years and they continue to support the work of the Cork LGBT Archive. We were given a Hidden Heritage Award by the Heritage Council in 2016. We have also received support from the Cork City Council Heritage Office.

The problem, however, is that these are all small grants for very specific purposes: to publish a book or buy a scanner. What we really need is some core funding to enable the Cork LGBT Archive to employ staff to continue the fabulous work done to date. It has been amazing to have Patrick and Mira working with the archive over the summer, but this is only on a part-time basis for four months. After that, I’m back to being the sole volunteer. There is so much more to do and it is impossible to do this solely reliant on one volunteer. So if there are any wealthy donors out there – get in touch!

DRI: Why do you think that the digital preservation of cultural heritage data, such as the material in the Cork LGBT Archive, is so important?

Orla Egan: Archives are not neutral! So many of us find ourselves invisible and excluded from the mainstream versions of history and heritage. So many communities have had to establish archives of our own to ensure that our voices and our histories are recorded and shared. 

It is really important for communities, like the Cork LGBT community, to have a sense of our history and of how social change happens. And this in turn helps to create a more inclusive and nuanced version of Irish history.

Digitisation provides a tool to enable both the preservation and sharing of our history. Having this freely and easily available is important, through the Cork LGBT Digital Archive and also the collections in the DRI and Europeana

I recently received an email from a lecturer in an Irish college telling me that ‘loads of the students remarked that the Cork LGBT Archive was by far and away the most interesting and usable online archive they had worked on (and they were working solely on online archives last year).’

Seeing how useful the archive is to people makes the madness of the work worthwhile!

DRI: What would you say is the biggest challenge facing community archivists aiming to preserve the histories of their communities?  

Orla Egan: Lack of resources, both human and financial. This is a real barrier to the work of community archives. So many of us have no real funding and operate on the passion of the few who are mad enough to take on this work! This causes challenges in terms of the sustainability and security of these invaluable community archives. 

Ireland needs an accessible funding source to support the work of community archives. I frequently find myself jealous of colleagues in the UK and US who are able to access proper funding for their community archives.

DRI: Thank you, Orla. Patrick,  in June 2021 you began your position with the Cork LGBT Archive. Can you tell us a little bit about your role with the Archive and how you became interested in this project?

Patrick Egan: Hi, and thank you. Yes, I’ve always been interested in supporting local community activities. I live in Cork city and am a musician who has played traditional Irish music sessions for years around town, engaging with people from all walks of life. So when I first heard about Orla’s project when we both began our PhDs in UCC in 2014, I was very interested to hear about this hidden history. I am particularly interested in working with communities that have traditionally been on the fringes, the hidden voices if you like, and so being asked to be a digital archivist for this project felt like a number of interests were coming together. My role involves designing and managing a workflow where we can get images from the archival box to the DRI and beyond, so I manage the efficiency, the quality, and the ‘flow’ between each stage of the digital process. 

DRI: In a recent blog post detailing your time with the Cork LGBT Archive, you described the process of organising a workflow to enable the ingestion of materials into the collection in DRI. What did you learn from organising this workflow and were there any particular challenges that you faced? 

Patrick Egan: Setting up and managing a workflow for the Cork LGBT archive has been an interesting and rewarding challenge! Because you are working with a community-run archive, you have both a lot of flexibility and sometimes a divergence from rigid standards in terms of how you set everything up. Previously, I researched and worked at the Boole Library in UCC and in the Library of Congress, so I have some hands-on archivist experience. One of the challenges with the Cork LGBT Archive has been the lack of documentation that is normally associated with archival processes. The very ethos of the Archive is based on ‘doing’, so it was quite a challenge to pick up storage, scanning, metadata description, exporting to the DRI, and other variables without a ‘handover’ document which you would associate with some archival work. But this is the very reason that I like Cork LGBT Archive – it has an ‘edge’, and with a bit of care and attention, the same standard and quality of work can be achieved just like other archives in some ways. The difference in workflow I find is that in a smaller archive you are able to make and suggest changes as you go, you can work-in your ideas about cool digital stuff like visualisations, suggesting batch operations to improve efficiency, and all sorts of possibilities are allowed. Normally the ability to incorporate these ideas would not come your way in a more slow-moving archival environment.

DRI: Thank you, Patrick. Mira, thanks to the Heritage Council grant, you have been able to join the Cork LGBT Archive to assist with the digitisation of material to expand the digital archive. Can you tell us about a typical day of work for you or talk about a particularly interesting item that you have scanned?

Mira: Hi. A typical day of work for me can vary a lot, some days it might be scanning boxes of physical items, some days uploading those items to the digital archive and a mixture of things apart from that as well. We tend to do things in bulk, for example spending a few days scanning, then a day or two uploading everything so it's done in batches rather than on an item-to-item basis. There have been so many interesting items that I have scanned, it's really incredible to be involved in the process. At the moment we are working on the boxes of material on sexual health specifically related to HIV/AIDS so there is definitely no lack of things that we are finding that are really interesting and sometimes funny too. Something that interests me a lot and I enjoy finding would be the medical articles on how the virus actually works and how it takes hold of the cells, I find it super interesting to learn about and it's incredible to be able to look at the difference in information available from year-to-year and how the advice changed as more information was learned, it’s something I can relate to how we are living at the moment with the coronavirus because when it first started we knew virtually nothing about it and now almost two years later there is so much more we can say about it. By far my favourite item to find and scan in the boxes was a ‘Shag Pack’ – they were little boxes containing an information sheet, condoms, and lube. I had been reading loads about them and the planning that went into them and then we managed to find one, and scan it, condoms and all!

DRI: One of the new initiatives that you developed, is an Instagram account for the Cork LGBT Archive where you share interesting facts about Cork LGBT History. What have you learned from your research for the Instagram account?

Mira: One thing I have learned through the research for the facts for the Instagram account is how little I actually knew about LGBT history. I started with the facts by sitting down with Orla's book Queer Republic Of Cork and writing down any short parts that jumped out and seemed interesting. From that I learned so much more about the city we are living in, it's really incredible to realise that there is such a rich history here that you don't really notice unless you look for it. I think something that struck me was how recent a lot of the history was; for example, that gay sex was only decriminalised in Ireland in 1993. It's both heartbreaking and empowering to think about the degree to which people had to fight to get these laws changed. Overall, through the research for the Instagram account and generally through the material in the boxes, I have learned an unbelievable amount about Cork LGBT history and it's something I hope to continue to learn about.

DRI: Thank you all for your time. Before we finish up, Orla, would you like to share some information about recent developments enabled by the support of the Heritage Council grant, such as the photography exhibition ‘Cork Queeros’, and the filming of new oral history interviews?

Orla Egan: We received a grant from the Heritage Council last year that enabled us to purchase a new A3 scanner and some audio-visual equipment. A further grant this year from the Heritage Council enabled us to begin to use that equipment and develop some projects.

It has been AMAZING to have some funding to add to the Cork LGBT Archive team and having Patrick and Mira working with me for the summer is wonderful. It is incredible to see the progress we are making in adding to the digital collection and reviewing and revamping our systems and storage. We will also be adding significantly to our collection on the DRI and Europeana. It has also been fun working together. The Gay Project has provided us with room to work. We have developed a Spotify playlist for the archive – which includes the B52s Love Shack – we have adapted it slightly to sing about the Shag Pack that Mira mentions above – ‘The Shag Pack, a little ol’ pack so we can get together, Shag Pack baby!’

However, as the summer draws to a close, I will soon be losing these fantastic colleagues and the work of the archive will slow significantly. It makes it even more clear how much we need core funding to support the ongoing work of the Cork LGBT Archive.

Our plans to record more oral history interviews have been hampered to a certain extent by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. However, we have received training on how to use our new AV equipment and hope to record more interviews in the coming weeks. 

Our big new project this summer has been the creation of the Cork Queeros Exhibition. 

​​Cork Queeros is a photography exhibition of Cork LGBT Activists, Artists, Athletes – those who have contributed to making the Cork LGBT community colourful, dynamic, and vibrant.

The Cork Queeros exhibition showcases photographs, self-selected by the participants, alongside biographical information about each person, showing their connection and contribution to the Cork LGBT community. Participants identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, GenderQueer, GenderFluid, Feminist, Dyke. The most senior was born in 1945, while the youngest participant was born in 1999.

The Cork Queeros Exhibition was on display in the Cork City Library during Cork Pride and is on display in St Peter’s Cork during Heritage Week 2021. There is an accompanying digital exhibition, designed by JacobEM.com, which can be found here: https://corklgbtarchive.com/cork-queeros/ 


As a publicly funded repository for Ireland’s social and cultural data, the Digital Repository of Ireland (DRI) believes it is important to make long-term preservation of digital materials open to a wide range of organisations. We value the publication of a diversity of datasets and collections and are committed to supporting community-based archival initiatives through sharing our digital preservation skills and profession-based knowledge. We, therefore, offer some free memberships, and all the related benefits, as part of our DRI Community Archive Scheme, which opens for applications on 1 Sept 2021. Find out more about the DRI Community Archive Scheme on our dedicated webpage.

Interview by DRI Communications and Engagement Coordinator Áine Madden

Image: Mira Dean, Orla Egan, and Patrick Egan with the Cork LGBT Archive scanner