The Past & Future of Free Collecting with Liana Zhou, Kinsey Institute

Academic Freedom, Archives

By: Brian M. Watson

Morrison Hall, Home of the Library and Special Collections of the Kinsey Institute.
Morrison Hall, Home of the Library and Special Collections of the Kinsey Institute.

The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction (KI) was established by Dr Alfred Kinsey in 1947, and is considered one of the leading institutions in the world’s understanding of human sexuality. The Kinsey Institute Library and Special Collections were established alongside the research institute in order to support and empower the research staff. Indeed, Kinsey himself has been described by Liana Zhou as the “first librarian” of the Institute. Today, the Library and Special Collections, which became part of Indiana University in 2016, are recognized as being one of the largest and most important archives pertaining to sex, gender, sexuality and reproduction. As a result of the unique nature of their research and collection, the KI has been at the forefront of intellectual freedom and research and helped establish the legal basis for academic freedom, as Liana and I discuss below.

Brian M. Watson, OIF Blogger & Kinsey Institute Student Archivist, Indiana University Bloomington: How about we start with who you are and what you do?

Liana Zhou, Director, Library & Special Collections of the Kinsey Institute: I’m Liana Zhou, Director of the Library and Special Collections of the Kinsey Institute and I oversee the collection, acquisition, administration and the scholarly services.

BW: How did you how did you come to the Kinsey?

Liana Zhou, Director of the Library and Special Collections of the Kinsey Institute.
Liana Zhou, Director of the Library and Special Collections of the Kinsey Institute

LZ: I was very lucky—I consider myself very blessed.

I had my undergraduate education at a university in China. And then I studied Western Philosophy in China for two years as a graduate student. And I studied Sigmund Freud. Very strange and interesting [to think of now], the Chinese considering Sigmund Freud as a philosopher—which I never questioned, because he was interpreting everything from the perspective of sexuality.

BOTH: [Laughter]

LZ: So yes, I met some interesting and important friends, one of them from Australia and he asked me a question. He said, “If you ever get a chance to study, elsewhere, such as US or Europe or the Americas, what would you study?”

And I thought, “I would study something I can’t study in China.” — and he said, “What would that be?”

Well, I really only had two topics, but because I didn’t know this friend that well at the time, I only mentioned religion, but really I was interested in human sexuality and also religion.

And his friend and roommate at the time—they were in China at the same university pursuing their study—was from the Earlham College [in Indiana, about an hour from Indianapolis]. My Australian friend went back to his roommate and they gave me the application for the school of religion in Earlham.

And I just felt so fortunate. I spent two years at the Earlham School of Religion.

BW: That must have been a crazy transition! If I am doing my math right, you were in China during the tail end of [Mao’s] Cultural Revolution when everything was still much more controlled and strict than it was today?

LZ: Yes, it was an interesting time. I grew up during the Cultural Revolution. Officially it ended in 1976. I went to college in 1980. It was at that brief, brief moment of opening up. At that time, even ‘psychology’ was not even a well-accepted discipline because people felt—gosh how could there be psychology?

BOTH: [Laughter]

LZ: So I think I benefited from that that window of transition—that paradigm shift. The fact that it was even possible to study Western philosophy was partially due to the ending of the Cultural Revolution. Otherwise it would have been unthinkable.

BW: You’ve been working at the Kinsey Institute for about 29 years now. There has been quite a lot of change at the KI during your time here, right? How have things changed for you and the KI?

Former and current staff of the Library and Special Collections of the Kinsey Institute. From left to right: Liana Zhou, Saundra Taylor, Joanne Passet, Margaret Harter, Shawn C. Wilson, Ruth Beasley.LZ: There have been a lot of changes. I came at a time when the Institute had a number of changes. The KI lost its three librarians in the late 1980’s, and the collections were in transition from one space to another—they had a renovation and a move. So when we came the [entire] collection was boxes, piled boxes. Because the librarians had left probably close to two years. So there was a gap—there was no ordinary transition of stewardship.

Margaret Harter, my librarian colleague, and I arrived on the same day. May 7th 1990. Our first task was to go over boxes and figure out where they should go.

BOTH: [Laughter]

LZ: One of the major changes was early on, when we had to make a decision: should we revise the in-house developed computerized library cataloging system or go with the IU Libraries Cataloging System?

Fortunately, the dean of IU Libraries at the time, James G. Neal, who later became ALA president, was an extraordinary supporter of the Kinsey collection. [With his support, we were] able to migrate whatever computer data we had—bibliographic records and such—to the IU Library system, which was known as NOTIS at the time, then later on was changed to SIRSI [and is now known as IUCAT] and our records migrated along. Stephanie Sanders, Tom Albright, and Gary Charbonneau were also major help in this transition.

But you asked the perfect question: change. It has been a time of change. Change is becoming a very constant word in our profession.

BW: Yes, and I think in connection with that, you had this beautiful article in American Libraries Magazine last year. About the long history of the Kinsey, and there and elsewhere I think you note this move from erotica to more focusing on sexuality—is that still true? And have you noticed a change in the archiving world as well?

LZ: I think the editors who that reached out to me were trying to understand the change as well. And I think you are right. I think they were trying to understand the change in the conceptualization of erotica and that of sexuality. There’s always a gap.

People always feel that they are distinctively different. I think for Kinsey, [however, that] they are distinctively connected. But I think for the general public there was a process of seeing some erotica as the ‘other,’ as outside of the humanities—describing it as a perversion. But I think the Kinsey collection has always been trying to integrate those two concepts.

I often describe the Kinsey collection as the studies of sexuality and expression of sexuality and you can study the expressions of sexuality but that would speaks to the spectrum of sexuality as a whole.

BW: Yes, I agree—and it reminds me that you had this other work in Library Trends that also made this connection too, and I wanted to ask you about it. You wrote “documented sexual experience is not only a commercialized or sometimes artistic and cultural production but also can be a self-reflective, emotional, philosophical, and private experience.” I really felt like that brought those two concepts together.

LZ: Thank you. And I think that sexuality is is often an individual struggle. And I think that struggle has always been there. And somehow, I think that society has always allowed it to be an individual struggle, not recognizing [that it is our common] human struggle.

And that Library Trends article was really trying to speak about the process about how an individual’s reflection is really a human reflection and it should be part of the institutional home.

I don’t think I’m doing something special there by writing these stories. I really think it’s really continuing what [Alfred] Kinsey’s vision and practice was—verbalized in a different way by using contemporary stories to illustrate this this well-established theory.

BW: This November will be sixty three years since US v 31 Photographs in which the United States government seized photographs that were enroute to the Kinsey Institute. And in that case, the judge ruled that the photographs were okay because they were going to be studied by scientists and scholars. This case is often pointed out as foundational to intellectual and academic freedom today.

Do you have any thoughts about like how them how important that case was? Your coauthored book about the Kinsey Institute made a very strong claim about that case.

LZ: Professor Judith Allan, her extraordinary PhD students, and other coauthors [Hallimeda E Allinson, Andrew Clark-Huckstep, Brandon J Hill and Stephanie A Sanders] have done extensive research of the Kinsey archives. And the chapter on 31 Photographs was really examined well, and presented well. Our former curator Dr. Jennifer Yamashiro also wrote extensively about this case

The judge wasn’t speaking about the nature of the material, but the intent of the material, particularly in the hands of sex researchers. I thought that that was very, very wise—I can’t read his mind, but I think he was trying to differentiate in his mind what academic pursuit is versus what, at the time, some thought of as smut. Under the circumstances, he made his case in favor of the Kinsey collection. And I’m enormously grateful that he had the wisdom to make that case to his contemporaries sixty years ago. [The case] is definitely played an important role for the history and future of the Kinsey Collection—it established the legal protection for the Collection.

BW: Yeah, I think so too, it does connect a lot of the ideas we’ve talked about.

To conclude: as you know, this is an interview for the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom Blog. So I wanted to close by asking you what intellectual freedom meant to you?

LZ: Obviously, for a librarian and for our field, it is a moral and a guiding principle. So, as a professional, I think that it is of extraordinary importance.

I cannot speak for my home country today or its current standing, but I feel like have personally experienced the opposite: a culture that did not value intellectual freedom as an individual as a society or as a culture. From both an individual and a professional perspective, intellectual freedom remains a guiding principle.

And also, I think it is an empowering permission to say “let’s look at all human phenomena”—and many of them we still don’t understand. But let us have the wisdom and the courage to say “we must understand.” And that is an empowering principle.

So we should guard intellectual freedom. With all our resources, our collective wisdom, and our energy. Because sometimes it takes a lot of time, and repetition, but I think that is what is needed. But I am so grateful that ALA provides those sort of intellectual resources and platform.

BW: Thank you.

[This transcript of an audio interview has only been lightly edited for clarity.]


Brian WatsonBrian M. Watson is a historian of the book and sexuality, and works as a pre-professional archivist at the Kinsey Institute. They are especially interested in histories of privacy, censorship, queer classification and archival studies. After receiving History and English BAs from Keene State College, they received a MA in History and Culture from Drew University and are currently pursuing a MLIS in Archives and Digital Humanities at Indiana University Bloomington, with plans to apply for a PhD in Information Science. Brian has published a book on the history of obscenity and has a number of forthcoming publications elsewhere. Currently, they are working on a histories of post-WWII sexuality and another on the history of nonmonogamy. Find them on twitter @HistoryOfDesire.

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