Gerber/Hart Library and Archives (Gerber/Hart) held its fall benefit, "Unboxing Queer History LIVE!," on Oct. 15 at Gerber/Hart to raise funds in support of the library's mission to preserve LGBTQ+ history in Chicago and the Midwest.
The event featured a private VIP reception and Q&A with Gerber/Hart's Unboxing Queer History hit podcast's creative teamErin Bell, Jen Dentel and Ariel Mejiaand a tour of the library, including the restricted stacks.
When asked how the podcast got started, Dentel said Mejia approached the library and asked her if Gerber/Hart had done anything with audio before. Dentel told Mejia no and added that they found out about a RAILS (Reaching Across Illinois Library System) grant and she, along with Mejia and Bell wrote it together. This was the first time any of them had written a grant and they were successful.
Mejia said she saw a great opportunity to tell these stories at just the right time when podcasts are very popular.
Bell added that a podcast would be the perfect venue to share stories from the archives that most people do not know about and the first step in offering more digital content outside of what Gerber/Hart already offers on the website and social media platforms.
"The reception has been so much more than I hoped it would be," said Bell.
Dentel said they decided on eight episodes and then the process began of winnowing down the topics to that number with the goal of making the most impact with this first season.
Mejia called this endeavor a "really fun process" since, among other things, this was the first time she really learned what Gerber/Hart is all about and called Bell and Dentel great teachers.
In terms of the response to the podcast, Mejia said, "Chicago loves Chicago" and she was surprised by how much press they got for doing this while Dentel said, "It was definitely terrifying being on live television." Bell shared a piece of hand-written fan mail they received that she keeps at the library's front desk as a reminder of why they do what they do.
Among the other topics discussed were how Bell and Dentel came to work at Gerber/Hart, what collections they want to showcase in a potential second season should the funding come through, the connections they have made by doing the podcast with listeners who have approached them with more information, outtakes and suggestions for additional funding sources.
Guests were also invited to view pop-up exhibits from the stories that were told on the Unboxing Queer History podcast. Attendees who made an additional donation were able to vote on their favorite with the winner becoming a permanent exhibit at Gerber/Hart for the next year.
Gerber/Hart Development Coordinator Michael Rashid welcomed Gerber/Hart Board Co-chairs James Conley and Kevin Nunley to the stage.
Nunley gave a shoutout to the benefactors, patrons, volunteers and staffers while Conley spoke about the library's financial needs so they can hire more people and expand their offerings/move to a bigger space.
Then co-hosts Jules Gordon and Mejia hosted a live reading of episode four of the Unboxing Queer History podcastPeople Like Us, So Much More Than a Bookstore. The now-defunct LGBTQ-focused People Like Us bookstore was in operation from 1988-1997. Co-founders and co-owners Carrie Barnett and Brett Shingledecker became the first lesbian and gay man to embark on this endeavor of owning and running a bookstore together.
Following the live reading, Barnett joined Gordon and Mejia onstage.
"As important to me as People Like Us was, Gerber/Hart is as equally as important," said Barnett. "[The library] has a longer lifespan and more to say for people all over Chicagoland and [elsewhere]. Gerber/Hart is deeply important to me. I appreciate you being here and listening to our stories."
Barnett added that she never imagined that their bookstore would be a part of the archives when she and Shingledecker (who occasionally works in Canada and sent his regards) were running it.
"The silent auction is different than what one would expect because the bids are a pledge to help pay for items that are necessary for the library such as folders, a bar-code scanner and boxes for LPs," Rashid told Windy City Times. "The highest bidders also got to take home a goodie bag of things from the Gerber/Hart archives."
Rashid closed out the event with another appeal for operations funding and the pop-up exhibit winner announcementPeople Like Us, So Much More Than a Bookstore display.
Michaels provided the catering while Leatherbee and Apologue sponsored the beverages.
To listen to season one Unboxing Queer History episodes, visit exhibits.gerberhart.org/exhibits/show/unboxingqueerhistory.
See gerberhart.org/ .