By Mark Engebretson
As a child, Lisa Vecoli played “hide-and-seek” with her brother in the library stacks at the University of Minnesota, while waiting for her father to finish his work day at the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC). Rudi Vecoli had moved his family to Minnesota in 1967 to become the first director of the IHRC — a position he held for 38 years.
Over the years, he dreamed of a state-of-the-art building to preserve the IHCR archives and his dream was realized in 2000 when the Elmer L. Andersen Library opened — five years before Rudi retired.
Now, Lisa Vecoli is retiring as curator of the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in GLBT Studies — which is also housed in the Andersen Library.
“Andersen Library is now 19 years old, but it’s been part of my life for 50 years,” Lisa Vecoli says. “The fact that my father played a role in getting the building built that now houses the GLBT collection is a source of pride for me.”
That pride is evident in two photos that Lisa holds dear — one of her father, who passed away in 2008, and one of her — standing with arms wide in the middle of the archival stacks in the cavern beneath Andersen Library.
She likens her father’s work at the IHRC to that of her own with the Tretter Collection.
“For him, it was about the recognition and inclusion of Italian-Americans in particular but the immigrant voices more generally. … So it felt real natural for me to say, ‘I’m doing the same thing,’ she says. I’m serving the GLBT community, but it’s the same mission — it’s to allow people to articulate their own authentic experience and to demand that history include that.”
Making the Tretter collection more diverse
In June 1972, Jean-Nickolaus Tretter and friends organized the first Twin Cities commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall Riots. Forty-six years later TC Pride has grown into one of the largest celebrations in the country — and the Tretter Collection continues to host a history pavilion at Pride.
In 1983, Tretter — concerned that “Our Gay history was disappearing as fast as we were producing it” — consciously started collecting anything he could about the GLBT community. In 2000, Tretter donated his collection to the University of Minnesota Libraries, realizing that it no longer was manageable in his apartment.
“Jean started with a good base of material, but Lisa has certainly done a lot to broaden the collection,” says Kris Kiesling, director of the U of M Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections. “It was essentially a gay male collection with a smattering of lesbian content and an even smaller smattering of bi-sexual and transgender materials. And Lisa has really built those components of the collection.”
Perhaps the highlight of Vecoli’s tenure at Tretter was her leadership in creating, developing, and managing the Tretter Transgender Oral History Project. Since 2015, the project has focused on documenting the experiences of transgender and genderqueer people in the Upper Midwest. Vecoli hired Andrea Jenkins, who conducted nearly 200 interviews covering identity, family, love, and experiences. These oral histories are posted online.
In November 2017, Jenkins became the first openly transgender African-American woman elected to public office when she won the Eighth Ward seat on the Minneapolis City Council.
Around that same time, Vecoli was granted funding for Phase 2 of the project, which will examine transgender community organizing, policy development, and political activism around the country.
Two national awards
Vecoli’s accomplishments at Tretter have received national attention. In the last two years, Vecoli has accepted two national awards on behalf of the Tretter Collection.
In 2016, Tretter was the inaugural recipient of the Newlen-Symons Award for Excellence in Serving the GLBT Community by the American Library Association’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table.
“The Newlen-Symons Award recognizes the tremendous impact of the Tretter Collection and its leadership in collecting and preserving the record of the GLBT community, from the University of Minnesota campus and beyond,” ALA President Sari Feldman said at the time. “Through preservation, collection development and advocacy, the Tretter Collection embodies how libraries can transform lives and communities.”
Last year, Vecoli and Tretter received the Society of American Archivists’ Diversity Award. Members of the award committee noted that Tretter staff bring the “collection’s diverse contents out of the archive and into the community through teaching, exhibits, and presentations.”
Making the collection more accessible
Kiesling also touts Vecoli’s leadership in making the entire Tretter Collection more accessible to researchers by leading an effort to process, define, and catalog more than 1700 boxes of material.
The effort “fundamentally transformed the collection,” says Vecoli. “When I walked in we had 22 Finding Aids on the website. And now we have almost 200.”
“And the use of the collections has increased exponentially, as a result,” adds Kiesling.
Vecoli is quick to note that she was in the right place at the right time when she took the job in 2013, saying she has no degree in history or library science and no formal training in being an archivist or curator.
But she was uniquely qualified for the position, based on her background in political organizing and in the GLBT community. And, she had served on the Tretter board more than 10 years when she accepted Kiesling’s offer in 2013 to become the full-time curator.
The Michael McConnell Papers
Soon thereafter, Vecoli was instrumental in the acquisition of the Michael McConnell Papers, the archival collection of Michael McConnell and Jack Baker — who in 1970 became the first couple in the United States to apply for a same-sex marriage license. Their actions were the first step in a fight for equality that was ultimately vindicated 45 years later when the Supreme Court ruled that gay couples nationwide have a right to marry.
The collection includes the letters, documents, news accounts, and interviews that chronicle McConnell and Baker’s groundbreaking history.
“McConnell and Baker were very publicly ‘out’ at a time when few GLBT people were visible,” says Vecoli. “As a result, they received thousands of letters from people around the world. These letters, notes and cards are a remarkable insight into both attitudes in the mainstream community and challenges faced by GLBT individuals.”
Vecoli officially retired April 2, but is finishing up work on Phase 1 of the Tretter Transgender Oral History Project, and she plans to help with the transition of Tretter’s new curator, Rachel Mattson, who takes the reins in late May.
Still, as Vecoli steps down as full-time curator, it felt like a good time to reflect.
“I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Vecoli says. “It’s been a magical time.”