Travis York ‘23 is tracing LGBTQIA history through the archives
How do you begin when you’re tasked with looking through physical archival material but most of your experience is with digital resources?
Travis York’s strategy was to dive in head first.
A senior studying history, York began working at Princeton University Library’s (PUL) Mudd Manuscript Library in the fall of 2022. He was looking for another on-campus job and came across a position that allowed staff to look through the archives.
“During the first couple weeks of the job, I was really orienting myself to looking through archival material,” York said. “How do you find and connect these pieces that you’re seeing? Then I stumbled upon a magazine and was like, ‘this is so fascinating to me.’ So, if I’m interested in it, I may as well dive head first into whatever this may be and see if I can come up with anything.”
Over the last two semesters, York worked at Mudd as a blogging assistant, spending his work hours on a pair of projects examining the LGBTQ community, both nationally and locally here at Princeton.
His first project introduced him to “Drum: Sex in Perspective,” a gay men’s magazine from the mid- to late-1960s. “It was published by the Janus Society in Philadelphia, right after they had gone through a change in leadership and it was kind of a tumultuous time for the organization,” York explained.
Thumbing through the magazines, York started piecing together the ways in which gay and queer language was being used in the magazine to subvert the watchful eye of the government. During the magazine’s run, the US Postal System would actively attempt to repress mailings of the publication.
“There is just a lot of almost cryptic messaging that you wouldn’t understand from an outsider perspective because they knew they were being watched by the mail system,” York said, adding that his project served to chart the trajectory of the magazine during its run.
For his next project, York jumped a couple decades into the future to focus on the AIDS crisis in the Princeton community during the late-1980s and 1990s.
“I had an idea because I heard of the My Princeton Oral History Project. A friend who worked on the project was telling me about the stories that interviewees had about attending Princeton and the AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s,” York said. “I thought it would be really interesting to look at the impact of the AIDS crisis at Princeton.”
York turned to issues of the “Progressive Review,” “Nassau Weekly,” and the “Daily Princetonian,” as well as archival materials from student organizations like those found in the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Alliance Records.
“You can see, getting towards the late-80s and early-90s in Princeton, all of a sudden there is this boom in the student magazines and newsletters about AIDS and about queerness on campus,” York said, “in part because of the activity of these organizations, and in part because of this societal growth and discussion around AIDS and the queer community because AIDS was seen as a gay men's disease.
“It’s interesting to see there reaches a point in the late 80s where suddenly there’s one article, then the next time there’s one or two, then there’s three and it becomes more repeated that people are talking about queerness on campus.”
Nestled chronologically in the middle of these two projects is York’s own senior thesis, in which he examines the Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA). Operating largely during the 1970s, the TWWA was a socialist, feminist, women of color organization advocating for an intersectional approach to women’s oppression.
The alliance had just one book written about it, but York has fleshed out his research with books on feminist and black feminist theory, social justice, and intellectual activism, as well as temporally adjacent items from the archives.
York admits that navigating the archives takes a bit of persistence and a healthy dose of trial and error.
“You have to have a particular method to look through archive material because there’s a lot of it,” York said. “You really have to try and to scan for something that relates to the thing you’re looking for and it takes trial and error. You’ll find one or two pieces that kind of connect but then lead you to a new direction. Or you find a reference to something, and you’ll have to search for that reference in the Finding Aids.”
But most importantly, York advises fellow students looking to start their own historical research to reach out to an expert.
“Just ask, ‘I’m interested in this topic, can you suggest anything?’” York suggested, noting that he regularly lobs questions to his supervisor, Library Collections Specialist April C. Armstong and Librarian for Gender & Sexuality Studies and Student Engagement Sara Howard.
York said, “They know so much, and they know how to navigate PUL resources so well, that in the three days it takes you find a specific book they can find it in a couple hours, pick it out for you, and kind of jump start what it is you are trying to research.”
Published on April 4, 2023
Interested in becoming a blogging assistant at Mudd? Contact Library Collections Specialist April C. Armstrong.
Written by Brandon Johnson, Communications Strategist
Media Contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications