Out of the Ashes
This article originally appeared in Issue No. 13 (December 1996) of the Friends of LAGANZ Newsletter.
On September 11 1986, barely two months after the successful culmination of the law reform campaign, the contents and the premises in Wellington of the Lesbian and Gay Rights Resource Centre (LGRRC) went up in flames. The ugly violence of arson intruded into our lives, with its sodden aftermath.
The LGRRC provided a focus for and an expression of the identity of gay and lesbian communities, locally and nationally, and so the fire evidenced a destructive desire to violate that identity itself.
But the "FAG" daubers were out of luck. The response was a resolve to preserve as much of the lesbian and gay heritage of Aotearoa as possible. Out of the ashes of a room in Boulcott Street, in a building which has long since disappeared through local redevelopment, has grown the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand.
What was to become the Lesbian and Gay Rights Resource Centre was established in 1977 as the NGRC Resource Centre under the auspices of the National Gay Rights Coalition. When the NGRC was restructured in 1981 the resource centre became an autonomous collective, the LGRRC as such, though it retained close cooperation both with the NGRC and the Pink Triangle Collective.
Its purpose, as the choice of name indicates, was to provide resources which could support activities on a number of fronts including law reform, censorship, human rights and associated legislation, lesbian and gay health, and many more.
The LGRRC played a critical role in the fight against HIV/AIDS, as has been recognised both by the NZ AIDS Foundation and by the Department, as it then was, of Health. The original AIDS Support Network came into being at a meeting in the centre back in May 1984, and information about AIDS was a major component of the LGRRC’s collections. At the same time the centre accumulated material about gay and lesbian sexuality, identity and culture - and history. It acted as the archival repository of the NGRC and its various member groups. It became increasingly obvious that huge amounts of invaluable material might be lost for all time if active efforts were not made to preserve it, and to encourage individuals and groups to keep in mind the need to do so.
The LGRRC Collections
Inevitably the character of the collections evolved and by 1986 the LGRRC, through a trust board established in 1984 for the task, owned an important archives and research library.
Victoria University’s Stout Research Centre commended the LGRRC as holding a significant place among the educational and archival centres both in Wellington and in the country as a whole. What exactly was imperilled by the arson?
The Jack Goodwin Collection - a collection of some 1200 books and pamphlets developed around a substantial donation of books from Jack’s estate. About 500 serial titles.
The archival records of about 80 New Zealand organisations, many contained in a slim folder but a number of them very substantial indeed. They included those of the NZ Homosexual Law Reform Society, the National Gay Rights Coalition, the Gay Task Force, the Pink Triangle Publishing Collective, and the AIDS Support Network. Together these papers were contained (just!) in 22 filing cabinet drawers. Personal papers and manuscripts. Newspaper clippings and scrap-books. Audio and video recordings. Photographs. Posters, banners and badges. A variety of other ephemera and memorabilia.
The contents of the collections were well documented; the printed materials had been catalogued according to a system devised by the LGRRC’s Administrator, Phil Parkinson. Indeed the whole development of the collections had occurred under the guidance and control of professional librarians. The LGRRC was a member of the Archives and Records Association of New Zealand which described the collections as a community-based archive of national importance.
Well before the arson attack the LGRRC trustees were already coming to grips with potentially huge problems in safeguarding the future of the archives. In the mid-80s it seemed that lesbian and gay archives everywhere were struggling: the Australian Gay Archives were to go into storage; the Hall-Carpenter archives in England lost their premises; in Dublin the Hirshfeld Centre would be burned; the Canadian Gay Archives were under threat; the International Gay & Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles ran out of money. In New Zealand the lease on the Boulcott Street premises would sooner or later expire as the redevelopment of that area took place. Finding an alternative suitable in terms of access and affordability was going to become a major headache.
The night of 11 September 1986 brought two arsonists to Boulcott Street. Here is Phil Parkinson’s description of that night as he reported it to the trustees a few days after the fire.I left the Centre at about 10.00 ... When the next door neighbour returned home about 11.00 the front door was shut, but the intruders may already have been in the building by then. The fire was noticed soon afterwards, when residents smelled smoke and the arsonists were seen in the building before they fled. There were two young men about 18-20 who looked "very straight" according to Carol, a resident who saw them. She said they looked "like christians". After the fire was located the residents fought it with buckets of water and a hose (which wasn’t working) before the brigade arrived. The brigade did a very good job, using powder extinguishers and some water, and their efforts reduced the damage considerably. ... I was called to the scene just after midnight by a friend who happened to be in town. When I arrived about 12.20 the fire was out. I made a preliminary statement to a policeman and a preliminary inspection to determine the damage.
The intruders, who incidentally had defecated in the stackroom, used some recent issues of Campaign Australia - and perhaps cleaning fluid as an accelerant - to start fires in half a dozen places. Most, fortunately, did not do much damage; the worst was the fire fuelled by the bean bags and armchair. The photos opposite tell their own story. [The photos referred to have not yet been reproduced here. - Webmaster.] The one at top left was taken by Miriam Saphira in 1985; the one below was taken the day after the fire from very nearly the same angle where the damage clearly focuses in the corner to the right of the desk. The poster to the left of Phil helps to compare the perspective of the two shots. At top right are some of the charred items, while below Roger Swanson examines some of the wet material later spread out to dry. Our thanks to Alexander Turnbull Library staff for help in reproducing the photos in a form we can photocopy for this newsletter.
Much of the furniture was badly damaged by the fire itself as were ephemera and other materials stored in the corner to which I drew attention in the photograph at bottom left. Outright losses were remarkably few; charred edges etc were more common, while soot and smoke damage was fairly widespread. The filing cabinets protected the archival papers well, and much vulnerable material (photos, cassettes and the like) was stored well away from the seat of the fire. Added to the above was, of course, the fact that parts of the collection were wet.
Some of the damage was indelible and can be seen in and on papers, pamphlets and so forth still in the archives, which acquired, in addition, a rather macabre exhibit as a consequence of the blaze. Phil’s report describes it thus: The heat from the fire above the stacks can be imagined from the fact that a plastic lampshade above the bookstack melted and enveloped two books below it like a large jellyfish. This has been collected as an artifact.
The Turnbull library, which has traditionally helped libraries and archives which suffer fire or flood damage, provided space (and security) in its premises in Courtenay Place which were being evacuated as the new building in Molesworth Street was occupied. A team of people evacuated filing cabinets and boxes of damaged material to that site where they were to remain for almost a year during the cleaning, drying, sorting, re-organising etc which followed. Other, undamaged, materials were stored in Roger Swanson’s garage and at the Awhina Centre in Newtown. It would be August 1987 before the collections were all re-assembled in one location.
The ATL Agreement
The trustees had always thought that finance and location were the two problems to be solved in finding a new home for the LGRRC collections. The fire added security to the list in no uncertain terms. In practical terms the issue was how to ensure that ownership and control of the collections could be preserved consistently with robust security in a location to which lesbians and gay men could have reasonably easy access for research and study.
The solution eventually worked out was to form an agreement with the Alexander Turnbull Library which was duly signed on 30 March 1988, and formally announced on 5 April.
The LAGANZ Collection
The whole collection of materials which was the subject of the agreement was renamed the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand. In broad terms the agreement was that the LAGANZ collection would be permanently housed in the Alexander Turnbull Library, would retain its integrity as an independent collection, would be cared for by curators appointed by the trustees, and would remain in the ownership of the LGRRC trust board acting on behalf of the gay and lesbian communities.
In 1988 Sara Knox and Phil Parkinson were appointed the first Honorary Curators of the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand. They and their successors, in accordance with the terms of the agreement, have sole discretion over issues of access to the collections and are accountable to the trust board in its exercise.
Sharon Dell, Turnbull’s Keeper of Collections who signed the agreement on behalf of the library, commented in a press release at the time: These collections form a unique and valuable range of research materials on the lesbian and gay movement, and we are pleased to be able to help a significant social movement to preserve its records under conditions of access which protect the often sensitive personal information such records contain.
The LAGANZ Trust
It was to be many more months before the task of restoring the collections and getting them into a state which would permit regular access was complete.
In the meantime the curators and trustees began what was to be the lengthy task of reconstructing the trust into a form appropriate to the collections’ changed circumstances. The shape of the new trust was finalised in 1992 when the LAGANZ trust in its present form came into being. Continuity between the original 1984 trust and its successor was provided in the persons of Paul Smith and Chris Parkin, in terms of the board, and Phil Parkinson in terms of the day-to-day care of the collections and its users. The new trust immediately signed a revised agreement with the Alexander Turnbull Library confirming the very satisfactory arrangement which had been established four years earlier.
And now ...
... the rest of the story will be told by those who come after us.
Last updated: 16/10/07
Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand (LAGANZ) | Te Pūranga Takatāpui o Aotearoa