What Drives Lisa Vecoli

To add diverse GLBT voices to the historical record?

Lisa VecoliLisa Vecoli loves observing those light bulb moments. They happen when patrons of the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in GLBT Studies suddenly see their personal experience reflected in materials preserved by the archive. Or when its resources help people gain understanding about others’ walk through life.

That’s why she works tirelessly to build the archive, organize its nearly 10 million pages of content, and preserve these materials for students, professors, and the public to peruse. The Tretter Collection, one of a few of its kind in the country, is a jewel of information about the people, organizations, and events that shaped gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities around the world.

Vecoli believes that her work is critical to fueling academic research, giving a voice to the voiceless, and bringing to light the experiences of a frequently ignored segment of the population.

“My job as curator of the Tretter Collection in GLBT studies is all about collecting, preserving, and honoring the stories of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people,” she says. “These voices have often been overlooked, ignored, or persecuted, which makes it even more crucial that their stories survive and be kept accessible for those willing to use them.”

Vecoli’s passion for books led her to Tretter Collection

Vecoli, whose earlier career included work in nonprofit management and community organizing, got involved with the Tretter archive because of her passion for collecting books about lesbians. It originated with her own coming out experience in the early 1980s, when there were few books, magazines, or other resources for lesbians.

Seeking a reflection of her life experience in literature, Vecoli has amassed a library of over 3,000 contemporary lesbian novels and 1,100 pulp fiction titles from the 1950s and ’60s. That treasure trove led her to a seat on the archive’s advisory board. When founder Tretter retired, Vecoli stepped in on an interim basis until the Libraries offered her the permanent job in 2012.

Her mission is to broaden the collection

Since becoming curator, Vecoli has made it her mission to broaden the archive’s offerings to reflect the diversity of the community.

“The GLBT experience as a whole has largely not been reflected in mainstream historic accounts,” she says. “But we all have very different experiences. A well-educated cisgender, gay, white professional will have a very different experience from a working-class lesbian of color, who will have a very different experience from someone who is transgender and living in a rural area. We need to capture as many examples of those voices as we can.”

To that end, Vecoli recently raised significant funds to launch a transgender oral history project. The project, the most ambitious of its kind being done anywhere in the world, is well underway collecting 200 oral histories from transgender people from across the Upper Midwest.

“It’s unusual for an archive to create the content, but in this case I felt like we needed to step into that role,” says Vecoli. She has also added significant materials about the bisexual community, communities of color, and lesbians to the collection.

Tretter will help future scholars better understand GLBT history

By archiving perspectives from across the GLBT community, Vecoli aims to help researchers and students of the future understand how America viewed sexuality and gender, and how those views evolved — and strikingly so in the late 20th century.

She relishes her role.

“It’s amazing and fun and engaging and challenging, and it teaches me enormous amounts about both historical and contemporary GLBT experiences,” Vecoli says. “I have had the opportunity to do work that I know will contribute to the importance of the archive over time.”

—Suzy Frisch

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