If they were stacked vertically, the LGBTQ artifacts at the William Way Community Center would stand 800 feet tall. That’s a tower nearly as tall as the Comcast Center, made up of hundreds of thousands of items like personal letters, artworks, t-shirts and buttons.
We’re talking flyers for drag shows from the early 2000s, diaries handwritten by the city’s public health officials during the AIDS epidemic, even a lifelike diorama of Woody’s, the famed Gayborhood bar.
The Wilcox Archives at William Way are nationally recognized as a powerhouse, according to director John Anderies, who said the collection is easily among the top 10 largest of its kind.
Locally, the center is much less celebrated.
“It’s definitely a hidden gem,” Anderies told Billy Penn. “It’s just amazingly rich and wonderful. And for a long time, if we were not collecting it, no one was.”
That is starting to change. The collection of queer history is growing in popularity, thanks to a 5-year-old push for a more organized operation. And on the horizon are continued improvements — including a total digitization of the archives.
A $300k grant to stop antiques from disintegrating
If you walked into the William Way archives five years ago, you’d see an operation quite different from the one that exists today.
The space was staffed exclusively by volunteers, who made time for archival work whenever they could — not necessarily full time or even consistently. No surprise if it was entirely empty of workers, especially during the summer, when the temp would reach 90 degrees. Up until a few years ago, there was no HVAC system installed.
Organization was similarly lacking. Items were kept inside whatever volunteers could get their hands on. Often that meant cardboard boxes with alcohol or fruit brands stamped on the sides. Those are rich in acids, which over time would leach into the precious scraps of yesteryear, with high potential for permanent damage.
“The people who came before me did the best they could,” Anderies said. “There were also things that had really not been done well, or right.”
No longer are the archives such a haphazard operation. Credit the William Penn Foundation for extending a $300,000 grant in 2014, which enabled the LGBTQ community center to hire two staffers — one full-time and one part-time — to get the collection under control.
There are now defined policies and procedures for cataloguing the queer curios, and they’re stored in acid-free storage boxes. Anderies, a career archivist, has professionalized the space.
Another notable change: an influx of artifact donations.
“We’re now bursting at the seams, and we weren’t then,” said Anderies “Now there’s not room for everything. Just so much more has come in.”
Thanks to all this, visits to the treasure trove have increased tenfold, with several dozen inquiries each week. There was so much interest that even when the grant money ran out, William Way officials worked hard to figure out how to keep things running.
“We had not only done what we set out to do, but we increased traffic substantially,” Anderies said. “Obviously you can’t do that and then take it all away.”
The battle over SEPTA passes
The collection itself is incredibly diverse. Compiled entirely through donations, it includes posters from protests, personal papers, apparel, and thousands of issues of periodicals like the Philadelphia Gay News.
When he’s got visitors to the archives, Anderies always pulls the same keepsake first. It’s an angelic portrait of a man named Garrett, who was a bartender at the now-closed gay bar Key West. Garrett died from AIDS in the ’90s, and his mother commissioned a painting to remember him. Eventually, she donated it back to the bar’s owner, who later passed it on to the community center archives.
In an archive dedicated to a group who’ve been persecuted, this is an essential piece, Anderies said. “Remembering people, memorializing is really an important part of what we do.”
The archives also document battles for equal treatment — including the drama surrounding gender markers on SEPTA Transpasses, which played out from 2009 to 2013. There’s a copy of a pass with a female marker, plus protest posters and even a SEPTA transit riders “bill of rights,” which begs the authority to remove the binary labels.
For Anderies, a lifelong music librarian and archivist, this work is different than any he’s done before.
It’s scrappier, for sure. He’s the only full-time staffer, and he’s got a lot less money to work with than he’s used to. Sometimes he’ll notice he’s on his last storage bin, and will cross his fingers that he can find funds to buy more.
“There’s definite challenges there,” Anderies said. “We’re really limited. There’s a lot that just doesn’t get done quickly that would in a different situation.”
But there’s a lot that he gains from the archives, too. As a gay man himself, Anderies has deepened his knowledge of queer history far past the surface. The most rewarding part: He gets paid to help others do the same.
Serving PhDs and 9-year-olds, soon to double in size
One day, Anderies got a call from the front desk. Did he have any time, the receptionist asked, to help two students who stopped by to collect information for a project on the AIDS epidemic?
Sure, he said. Send them up.
While he waited for the students — master’s or PhD candidates, he figured — to make it to the third-floor collection, he pulled some documents he thought might help their research along.
To his surprise, in walked two fourth-grade girls. A couple of 9-year-olds, all by themselves.
“The door opens and I’m like, wow, oh gosh, that stuff I just pulled, is that appropriate?” Anderies recalled. “I don’t know where they’re coming from, I don’t know who their parents are, I don’t know what kind of school they go to.”
That was an unusual case. Usually, archive attendees aren’t so young. Among the dozens of people who come in every week, it’s mostly folks working on dissertations, book authors and journalists.
Soon, visitors will be welcomed to a renovated repository. Along with upgrades to the rest of the center, the archives will soon double in size.
The existing room will keep the publicly accessible artifacts, and be outfitted with chairs, tables and desks. A second room will hold items too sensitive to casually touch. The idea is to make the collection more friendly to exploration by everyday Philadelphians.
Anderies is hoping to see those changes in the next six months.
“That’s a way’s off,” he said. “There’s all these dominoes that need to fall.”
Meantime, he’s digitizing what he can, so folks don’t have to come in to peruse the LGBTQ history. Everything’s already listed online, and Anderies has been adding photos as time allows.
The work isn’t easy, but in the name of preservation, Anderies believes it’s entirely worth the effort.
“Communities that have had a history of being oppressed in some way, it’s especially important for them to have control over their history,” he said. “To be able to tell their own story and not have it told by someone else.”