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Archiving For Social Justice

QPIRG and ArQuives document activism in Canada

“The bulk of our collection [is] ephemeral materials,” explains Ha Nhuan Dong. “Posters, zines, pamphlets that we collect or were donated towards us that relate to social and environmental justice.” Dong is the Resource Coordinator of the Alternative Library at Quebec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG)-McGill, located at 3516 Parc Avenue, just a couple blocks away from McGill campus. The Alternative Library is dedicated to providing hard-to-find materials that contribute to QPIRG-McGill’s anti-oppression mandate and support its working groups, according to the organization’s website. “The most important thing for us is to archive those ephemeral and often not recognized materials,” Dong told the Daily

The QPIRG Alternative Library also buys books and educates people, Dong adds, and is therefore not that different from a regular library. Yet it is distinctly “alternative,” he explains, as they “collect and distribute knowledge related to justice” in the “specific activist context.” QPIRG’s Alternative Library is part of a larger network of other loosely related independent, alternative libraries in Montreal, including – but not limited to – those at QPIRG-Concordia, the Center for Gender Advocacy at Concordia, Queer McGill, the Labour Library at AMUSE, and the Simone DeBeauvoir Institute. Most of the libraries in this network are led by students, and most have a non-hierarchical approach to functioning and archiving, per Dong. 

Those who work at the QPIRG Alternative Library collect donations whenever possible. Dong explains that they often gather freely-distributed materials from activist movements on campus and then add them to their collections. “Even though it is very hard to achieve and hard to maintain,” he says of the collection process, “it is a crucial part to let people know that this part of history existed so that organizations and activists of later generations can refer back.” However, the library is not structured as a formal archive. “The challenge is how to make [our materials] publicly accessible and easily navigable, in a database that people can search in an easy way,” Dong says. “But our goal has always been collecting these things as material evidence of activist existence.”  

The QPIRG-McGill Alternative Library also organizes justice-based activities. On October 27, they hosted a free, virtual presentation from the ArQuives, one of the largest LGBTQ2S+ archives in the world, located in Toronto. Similar to the QPIRG Alternative Library, the ArQuive’s mandate is to “acquire, preserve, organize, and give public access to information and materials in any medium, by and about LGBTQ2+ people, primarily produced in or concerning Canada,” and to “maintain a research library, international research files, and an international collection of LGBTQ2+ periodicals,” according to the organization’s website. The presentation was delivered by Ariana Ho, senior archivist at the ArQuives, and Daniel Payne, reference archivist at the ArQuives. 

Ho started the presentation by giving an overview of the history of the ArQuives and how they functiom today. She first explained that the ArQuives came out of the Gay Liberation Movement in Toronto, which happened from 1969 to1973. Following a series of protests and gay and lesbian organizing, in 1971, the Body Politic was established – Canada’s first gay and lesbian magazine. The magazine was organized as an informal collective, and remained influential for Canada’s gay and lesbian community throughout the ’70s and ’80s, explains Ho. In 1973, the Body Politic established the Canadian Gay Liberation Movement Archives with the goal of  preserving documents generated by the Gay Liberation Movement. The name has since been changed to the ArQuives to reflect the organization’s mandate. 

“Traditional archives have typically excluded marginalized folks from their collections, including but not limited to BIPOC, LGBTQ2S+, disabled, underhoused or newcomer experiences,” Ho wrote to the Daily. “The ArQuives aims to fill some of these archival erasures and gaps.” She emphasized that the ArQuives is a community archive, started and led by the community.

Ho says that the ArQuives have historically been volunteer-run, with volunteering just recently picking back up again after the pandemic slowed their operations. “We had somewhere around 150 volunteers, some of whom have been involved since the 1970s,” she adds. Today, there are eight people on staff on short-term contracts. Ho explains that the ArQuives do not receive operational funding, and while they do occasionally receive government grants and foundational support for specific projects, they are heavily reliant on generous donations from community members. 

Researchers can go to the ArQuives in Toronto and visit the research room to see the collection, Ho continued. It is here where reference archivists like Payne work and help researchers navigate the collection. “We receive hundreds of reference requests every year, and that’s from researchers across Canada and internationally,” Ho says. “Most of our researchers are academics, filmmakers, artists, etc.” 

She explained that a lot of digitization occurred during the pandemic in order to accommodate researchers. Researchers can now explore digitized materials by using the reference services to search the ArQuives’ collections. Those who are curious can also visit the Digital Exhibitions page on the ArQuives website, which allows you to explore highlights from the collection digitally. “You can learn about things like Halloween Drag Balls in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, the first gay and lesbian protest in the early ’70s, the history of trans health care activism in Ontario, and much more,” Ho says. 

When it comes to their collections, Ho says that they generally don’t turn away donations unless they don’t have the capacity or space to house materials. “Donors will oftentimes bring in T-shirts, buttons, horns, personal papers, and organizational papers from organizations that they were a part of,” she says. They look for donations that relate to everyday queer life. “We don’t simply collect the records of those who have a big impact,” Ho told the Daily. “Preserving the histories of everyday folks is important to us.”

The ArQuives are also home to a multitude of fonds, or materials grouped together that share the same origin and that are the product of a singule agency, individual, or organization. Ho spotlighted the Bernard Courte fonds, the Dykes on Mykes fonds, and the Chris Cushman fonds, all available for perusing. 

Ho ended her presentation by acknowledging that a large percentage of the ArQuives’ records centres around the lives and work of gay, white cisgender men, and have historically failed to preserve the records and history of racialized queer and trans folks. She highlighted some of the ongoing initiatives in efforts to increase the representation of marginalized members of the LGBTQ2S+ community in the ArQuives. For example, Ho discussed the Trans Collection Project, “which consists of conducting outreach with members of the trans community, assisting in the collection of trans materials, and preparing the records for permanent storage.” She also spoke of the ArQuive’s collaboration with the Roots and Rites/Routes and Writes Project, when they hosted a creative non-fiction writing workshop for young queer and trans South Asian writers to create an archive of their experiences to be preserved at The ArQuives. 

Next, Payne presented strategies to use when searching the collection. He demonstrated that you can sort results according to collection source, description level, collection/fonds, material type, decade, and more when searching online to narrow your search. He emphasized that it’s important to keep in mind that the archive is not a library. “You oftentimes go to a library that is organized through broad subject headings,” he explains, “and an archive is kind of almost a hacking of that whole system.” Alternatively, the archive is organized from the “bottom level up, based on individuals that lived through various time periods in history. We build up our collections through the way they saw their worlds.” 

You can explore the ArQuives’ collection through their website or by filing a reference request. There’s also an open call for on-site, remote, and hybrid volunteers; you can apply at In Montreal, you can visit the QPIRG-Alternative Library at 3516 Park Avenue, open on Mondays and Wednesdays from 2:00 to 6:00 PM. You can also check out material from the Alternative Library by registering to become a member through the library’s Linktree.

A previous version of this article incorrectly implied that the majority of the ArQuives’ collection has been digitized, that QPIRG stands for “Quebec Public Interest Research Group,and that the QPIRG Alternative Library charges an additional fee of $5 for use. The article has since been updated for accuracy.

The Daily regrets these errors.