Last year I wrote about the origins of Riot Grrrl, a primarily music-based activist movement formed in the US in the late 1980s. In 2009 a specific archive of material belonging to members of the movement was created at the Fales Library and Special Collections in New York.
Naturally called The Riot
Grrrl Collection this archive is the brainchild and responsibility of one of
the early Riot Grrrl followers who, fortunately, is a qualified archivist at
the Fales Library, Lisa Darms.
As a youngster Lisa had
been active in the punk and feminist communities at college in Olympia,
Washington State. This was the cradle of the Riot Grrrl movement as the 1980s
turned into the 1990s. One of Lisa’s room-mates during this time at college was
Kathleen Hanna, one of the pioneers of Riot Grrrl. Indeed, Kathleen is one of
the creators of a fanzine called “Riot Grrrl” which gave the movement its name.
Both Kathleen and Lisa
studied photography at Evergreen State College. Lisa’s interests began to turn
of art history and research. After gaining an Advanced Certificate in Archival
Management Lisa began working in a series of archivist positions, including at
the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Mayor’s office.
In 2008 Lisa applied for
the position of Senior Archivist at the Fales Library. Lisa had already had the
idea of forming an archive of Riot Grrrl material when she was being
interviewed for the post. She discussed it with her old friend Kathleen Hanna
and Johanna Fateman, another Riot Grrrl pioneer, after they all took part in a
panel discussion at Fales about donations to libraries by musicians and artists
Kathleen was very
enthusiastic about the idea and once Lisa was appointed as Senior Archivist it
seemed all the right people were in the right place at the right time to make
the Riot Grrrl archive a possibility. Lisa suggested the idea to the library’s
director, Marvin Taylor, and he agreed to help create the archive. With her
connections and contacts in the movement Lisa had many possible donors to
But why did such a
relatively small and private library as Fales seem so keen on creating a new
collection on the Riot Grrrl movement in its archive?
The Fales Library and
Special Collections is part of New York University. It is named after DeCoursey
Fales (1888-1966) who began donating thousands of manuscripts, books and
documents to the university from 1957. From this core collection the Fales
Library was formed. Over the decades new documents and collections began to be
based there, including the Downtown Collection. This is a large archive of
material relating to New York’s punk culture dating back to 1975. The Fales
director, Marvin Taylor, recognised how the Riot Grrrl Collection would form an
ideal parallel archive.
The Downtown Collection
was created by Marvin himself. Being a self-confessed “queer boy from the
Quaker Midwest” it seems a little incongruous to find him curating this
collection, the most popular and most consulted of the special collections at
Fales. Marvin has been Director for over twenty years, and as long as the
Downtown Collection remains popular I don’t imagine he’ll leave until he
So that’s how and why the
Riot Grrrl Collection came into being. But what exactly does the archive
contain? As I said earlier, Lisa has many personal contacts with some of the
founders and pioneers of the movement, so it wasn’t difficult finding possible
donors. Kathleen Hanna and Johanna Fateman both donated material to the new
collection, as well as several other pioneers.
Virtually anything is
accepted – books, posters, artwork, diaries, personal papers, fanzines, old
video tapes, audio cassettes, vinyl records, photographs, films, you name it. One
of the more unexpected artifacts Lisa has had to refuse is a bottle containing
someone’s poo (shades of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert”)!
But it would be wrong to
think that something like the Riot Grrrl Collection would be of no interest to
anyone other than Riot Grrrl fans. Like most collections of this type, whatever
the subject, it represents a snapshot of the society in which that particular
subject developed. It can tell us a lot about the fashions, art and social
attitudes of a particular time and place, and all too often it is the small,
seemingly insignificant items that can reveal the most. Many a time I’ve
regretted throwing away an old postcard or dog-eared magazine, or not hanging
on to the flyers handed out at early Nottingham Pride event.
The Riot Grrrl Collection,
while focussing on a particular sub-culture, is vital in understanding how the
wider lgbt community has taken shape. And, most of all, it preserves the names
of those who were part of it.