Looking Back 40 Years

Public Library focuses on 1969 and Stonewall

BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | To mark the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the New York Public Library will exhibit photos, newspaper articles, and other materials documenting one year in the early gay rights movement.

“The exhibit is just about gay and lesbian activism from 1969 to 1970,” said Jason Baumann, the exhibit’s curator and the library’s coordinator of collection assessment and LGBT collections. “The tone of gay and lesbian activism changed that year.”

The riots that broke out in June 1969 following a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in the West Village are generally seen as marking the start of the modern gay rights movement, though there certainly were “pockets of activism,” as Baumann said, prior to that.

“What changed in 1969 and 1970, there really is an uprising of energy,” Baumann said. Those riots are marked by the queer community with annual pride marches, rallies, and celebrations around the globe.

It is a modest exhibit, but the New York Public Library system, which encompasses four major research centers, with a main building at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue and 87 branches in Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx, could not display all the queer documents it owns. (The city’s libraries were incorporated before the 1898 five-borough consolidation, and Brooklyn and Queens maintain their own systems.)

Collections are measured in linear feet and, altogether, the library has “one-and-a-half to two miles of stuff” that is gay-related distributed among its various collections, Baumann said. The Stonewall exhibit, with just 80 pieces, represents a tiny portion of all that material.

The documents to be exhibited include “original photographs, pamphlets, police reports, newspapers, and letters” from that year, with a focus on records from the Gay Liberation Front, the Radicalesbians, the Gay Activists Alliance, and the Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries, according to a library press release.

Many of the photos were taken by Diana Davies.

“She very kindly gave us the rights,” Baumann said.

The exhibit will be open for a month starting on June 1 in a third floor hallway at the main building. With 100,000 monthly visitors, the exhibit is sure to gain exposure, as many will have to pass through it on their way to the third floor reading room.

Two “panel versions” of the exhibit, made up of a smaller number of items, will tour the library’s branches for the next year. The exhibit will also go live on the web in early June at nypl.org.

The library has also digitized roughly 2,000 images of early gay rights and AIDS-related events and documents. Those are already accessible on the library’s website. Much of gay material the library owns was collected by Mimi Bowling, who ran the library’s manuscripts division, but has retired.

“She was really instrumental in building a lot of these collections,” Baumann said. “That’s what we’re working on right now, to take care of what she amassed.”

In addition to the exhibit, Baumann will teach a class on researching gay history on June 13 at 2:00 p.m.; David Carter, author of “Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution,” a 2004 book and the definitive account of the 1969 riots, will give a lecture on June 17 at 6:00 p.m.; and members of the Gay Liberation Front, an early gay group, will participate in a panel discussion on June 24 at 6:00 p.m.

“I love having them here,” Baumann said. “They’re the most utopian and most radical organization.”

All the events related to the Stonewall exhibit will take place in the library’s main building.