Ben Blake envisions a future where academics from New York and Boston will catch Amtrak trains to Baltimore's Penn Station with the singular purpose of becoming immersed in one of the country's most compelling archives on the gay rights movement.
Blake, head of special collections at the University of Baltimore's Langsdale Library, thinks the foundation of that archive arrived in December, when volunteers with the city's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center brought boxes and boxes of old newspapers and legislative memos, photographs and fliers.
"This collection is just wonderful," Blake said on a recent evening on the library's fourth floor, as GLCCB volunteers sorted through decades of "Gay Life" and other newspapers chronicling the city's gay past. "For me as an archivist, I keep saying it, but it's a dream come true."
The fledgling partnership between UB and the GLCCB started months ago, as volunteers on the community center's archival committee began looking for a new home for the mounds of records that had been stored in the attic of the center's former headquarters for decades.
The GLCCB, founded in 1977, had been located on West Chase Street since 1980, but sold the building last year and recently relocated to the Waxter Center. The move forced volunteers to look for an institutional partner to take on the records, and UB stepped up.
"It feels like such actual, real progress," said Arnie VandeBrake, a member of the archives committee. "It's really, really good to be back getting our hands dirty."
VandeBrake, 31, said the entire committee is grateful for UB's support.
"It's so fortuitous, with them being in the neighborhood," she said, noting that a different home -- at the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis or the University of Maryland's archives in College Park, for instance -- would have physically separated the archives from Baltimore.
Blake, who started at UB in July, said the university's special collections has a mission to preserve contemporary, post-World War II Baltimore history, with a focus on the social, political and socioeconomic movements that shaped that history. The GLCCB's archives fit perfectly, he said.
"I do believe LGBT history is an area that hasn't really been documented with an official archives the way it should be," Blake said. "To me, this is really what archives today are all about."
Blake hopes the archives will inform future academics and students of "how the victories have been won, how social progress has been made."
The archives are still considered "unprocessed," meaning they still need to be fully catalogued before anyone in the public will have access to them. (Blake has already received requests.)
Patrick Alexander, another GLCCB volunteer, said there is no timeline for when the archives will be opened and accessible. Part of that depends on plans to digitize the newspapers first, he said.
Both UB and the GLCCB eventually want to have the entire run of "Gay Life" and its predecessors available on the web, for anyone to browse through for research. (They've already put a few of the earliest papers from 1979 online here.)
Dan McEvily, the current editor, said he'll diligently deliver five copies of each new issue to the library, as well -- giving the archives a bright future, even as they chronicle the past.
For volunteer Louise Parker Kelley, 57, a former GLCCB board member and longtime Baltimore resident who now lives in Silver Spring, that past was present in her mind as she sorted through boxes in the collection recently.
There she was, in the box in front of her, in a picture from one of many marches for equality. There, in another, she's all dolled up. And there, the original text of an early bill to ensure basic civil rights for gay Baltimoreans in the 1980s. Kelley remembers the battles.
Kelley said the fact the GLCCB had to move out of its West Chase Street headquarters, which carried such importance in the days when the city's LGBT community was afraid to gather in other places, was "sad," but also "a relief."
The building was old and needed a lot of maintenance.
The fact that its history will live on in the archives' new home, she said, is "fantastic."
Beyond the GLCCB's records, Blake said the library is looking to collect other materials from Baltimore's gay history as well, to continue to strengthen the collection. Those interested in donating can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun