Last Friday, I pedaled my butt to 6500 N. Clark Street to visit the Gerber/Hart Library, Chicago’s premier LGBTQ research space. At first I wondered if I was at the right building, as construction equipment and workers occupied the ground level, but the second floor was attractive and very open for business. An exhibit on LGBT music and a community bulletin board/table, offering free materials such as The Windy City Times, greeted me before I even entered the library. Once inside, I received an enthusiastic welcome from the staff member who offered a tour of the library, exhibits, and even the archives and special collections. The space was bright and inviting, equally embracing its academic mission and community-development role.
The organization wears several hats. Its lending library offers members books on LGBTQ topics, including tomes on social commentary, manuals on sexuality, and fiction of all genres. Anyone may acquire a library card for a donation, even if only $1. Shelves of non-lending material are available for researchers also, including back issues of LGBTQ periodicals like The Advocate and The Ladder. The library also includes several shelves of audio-visual materials, including VHS and even some Betamax in the archives. The temperature-controlled archives and special collections not only feature an extensive and varied selection of LGBTQ publications but also pre-Stonewall media and erotica representing a period when possessing such material exposed one to considerable danger and censure. Although the website currently lacks finding aids for the collections, staff and volunteers are working to create some.
The library’s namesakes, Henry Gerber and Pearl Hart, pioneered LBGTQ rights both locally and nationally. Gerber, an army veteran and Chicago postal worker, started the Society for Human Rights in 1924, perhaps the first LGBTQ rights organization in America. Although legal harassment and illegal arrest forced Gerber to close the SHR and leave Chicago the following year, he continued to support gay rights till his death in 1972. Hart, a member of Chicago’s Russian Jewish community and Chicago first female Public Defender in the Morals Court, practiced law for over six decades protecting youth, immigrants, and the gay community from injustice. One of the library’s several display cases features documents and photographs related to Gerber and Hart’s lives and work.
The Gerber/Hart Library represents an incredible resource for any historian performing research related to the LGBTQ community or its role in the wider underground media or civil rights battles in Chicago. In addition to its lending library and archives, Gerber/Hart curates exhibits that rotate every four months or so; the current exhibit highlights lesbian writers and publishers in Chicago and throughout the nation. Gerber/Hart also builds up the local LGBTQ community by hosting class visits, book discussion groups, and a monthly game night. Visiting hours are somewhat limited: Thursdays 6 pm to 9 pm, Friday 1 pm to 7 pm, and Saturday 12 pm to 6 pm. To learn more about the Gerber/Hart Library, or to make an appointment to visit the archives, visit http://www.gerberhart.org/